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Crusaders hope duo’s return sparks revival

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / November 11, 2011

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WORCESTER - They formed a closer friendship last season, sitting next to each other on the Holy Cross bench, watching first-year coach Milan Brown lead a group of determined but undermanned Crusaders attempt to make something out of the Patriot League season.

R.J. Evans and Phil Beans played a handful of games before having to sit out the rest of the season with injuries, and watched as Brown relied on little-used players to compensate for his two ailing veterans.

It was a difficult season - the Crusaders went 8-21 - especially since many of the players were privy to previous coach Sean Kearney being fired after just one unsuccessful season in 2010. Brown enters this season with his experienced duo back and determined to continue the momentum generated from weathering last year’s adversity.

The view from the coach’s seat was disheartening last season, as Brown looked down and saw two important players in walking boots. Their trousers have been replaced by practice jerseys, as Evans and Beans are healed, each cherishing the opportunity to return.

“It was hard, especially for the kind of year we had,’’ said Beans, a 6-foot 9-inch junior who missed most of the season with a foot injury. “And knowing I could be a big part to help that, but at the end of the day you knew you were just going to be watching instead of being able to go out there and make plays. That was the toughest part.’’

Evans led the Crusaders in scoring as a sophomore, but a hip flexor injury that required surgery limited him to eight games before he decided to take a medical redshirt. His presence gives Holy Cross perhaps the deepest backcourt in the Patriot League with seniors Devin Brown (last season’s top scorer) and Mike Cavataio. The time off taught Evans not to take the game for granted.

“It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, watching my team play all season,’’ said Evans, the league’s rookie of the year in 2008-09. “It was really tough. I would sit in my room and start crying because I had never been through this before.’’

Evans and Beans both spent the summer in Worcester and, in addition to practicing and rehabbing, worked at a local firm that inspects financial crimes and detects money laundering.

To help his players overcome the difficult start to last season - the Crusaders began 1-13 - and the continuing adversity, Brown called upon sports psychologist George Mumford, who worked several years with legendary coach Phil Jackson during his time with the Bulls and Lakers.

“It was so helpful that he was with us because he was able to talk to them to keep them mentally focused,’’ Brown said. “He had the hardware to back it up. It’s always great when you can start a sentence, ‘I told Michael Jordan’ or ‘I told Kobe Bryant,’ and they are going to listen. He was helpful for us because we were going to need to get over some mental hurdles.’’

In addition to convincing his guys they could be successful and that message resonated as the Patriot League progressed, Brown also has to regain their trust. Kearney had come in from Notre Dame and promised stability after Ralph Willard left. His tenure lasted 31 games, and when the Crusaders finished 5-9 in the league after being tabbed favorites, he was fired, replaced by Brown, who coached seven years at Mount St. Mary’s.

“I think our level of trust has gone way up,’’ said Brown about his team’s chemistry. “And so because of that, we’re a closer group. And I understood it would take time and the year before [with Kearney] they had just been asked to put all their chips in the middle of the table and it didn’t work out. And I came back nine months later and said ‘give me all your money again’ so they were slow to reach in their pockets sometimes.’’

That summer in Worcester allowed Beans and Evans to reflect on their Holy Cross past. As freshmen, the Crusaders advanced to the 2009 Patriot League championship before losing, 73-57, to American. The duo decided to take more of a leadership role in the direction of the team.

“We’ve emerged as leaders here, which we haven’t been since we’ve been at this school,’’ said Evans. “Being the leaders we took it on ourselves to change things that we didn’t feel were right in the past years. We have to keep continuing to do that.’’

Brown has spent the past several months galvanizing his team, inviting the guys over for cookouts with his family, offering off-court encouragement and support and going through the tedious process of building chemistry and faith.

The powers at Holy Cross are not accustomed to consecutive losing seasons or being second fiddle to Bucknell, Lafayette, and Lehigh in the Patriot League. While the school prides itself on an “academically rigorous, personalized education in the Jesuit tradition,’’ according to the school’s website, there is a distinct emphasis on athletics, and Brown understands the pressure to succeed.

This team should change their recent past, and will get the opportunity beginning tonight, when they open the season at the College of Charleston. Beans, Evans, Devin Brown, and Cavataio have spent the past two years in transition, and that road to consistency is getting smoother.

“I think the one thing that will keep our guys in check at least for right now is our record from last year,’’ Brown said. “Until we prove anything differently, we’re a 20-loss team. That’s who we are. This is as much of a driving force as anything else. Everyone else here wants to prove that’s not who we are.

“We want world changers to come out of here, but Holy Cross loves their basketball and we’re about winning. So we have to make sure the kids understand that as well, and they do.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashburn14