The Great Debate: Cornell 2009-10 vs. Harvard 2011-12


Who would win a hypothetical one-game playoff between 2009-10 Cornell and 2011-12 Harvard? (Photo Credit: gocrimson.com)

Ed Note: Our Cornell and Harvard writers participated in a debate over how a one-game playoff between the 2009-10 Cornell squad and the 2011-12 Harvard team would play out. This was a hypothetical game pitting the teams against each other. The debate was not meant to compare what each team has accomplished because Harvard, despite the lofty expectations, has done nothing yet this year. The point of this exercise was to compare how these teams would match up with one another and perhaps determine a ceiling for this heralded Crimson bunch if their unprecedented Ivy recruiting class lives up to the hype. With that out of the way, Sam Aleinikoff (SA) represented Cornell and C. River Banks (CRB) wrote in support of Harvard.


SA:

A year removed from a gut-wrenching finish to Ivy play for the Crimson, we’re putting Harvard back in another one-game playoff at Ivy Hoops Online, fictionally pitting this year’s Crimson against the 2009-2010 squad from Cornell. Let’s start by taking a look at the rosters before we get the debate going.

Cornell Big Red

G – Louis Dale – 5-11, 180 lbs – Senior
Accolades: Three-time First Team All-Ivy, 2008 Ivy League POY, 2008-2009 AP All-American Honorable Mention, 2010 Mid-Major MVP (awarded by collegeinsider.com)
Stats: (2009-2010) 12.8 ppg, 4.7 ast, 2.9 reb, 1.4 stl, 39% 3pt, 85% FT
Currently: Playing his second pro-season in Germany. Nicknamed “The Solution” by ESPN during the 2010 NCAA Tournament, Dale is terrorizing the likes of “The Answer” (Allen Iverson) overseas.
Hit List Includes: Outplaying John Wall in the Sweet Sixteen to the tune of 17 pts, 4 reb and 2 ast; torching Trevon Hughes and Jordan Taylor of Wisconsin for 26 pts, 3 reb and 3 ast; dominating Juan Fernandez and Temple with 21 pts and 7 ast.

G – Chris Wroblewski – Sophomore
Accolades: 2008-2009 Ivy League ROY, 2009-2010 All-Ivy Honorable Mention, 2010-2011 Second Team All-Ivy
Stats: (2009-2010) 9 ppg, 3.2 ast, 2.7 reb, 46% 3PT, 87% FT
Currently: Trying to help the Red recapture the glory during his senior year at Cornell.
Worth Noting: Ski was named Third-Team Academic All-America and was honored as one of the top 15 student-athletes in college basketball.

F – Ryan Wittman – 6-7, 215 lbs. – Senior
Accolades: 2006-2007 Ivy ROY, Three-time unanimous first team All-Ivy, Unanimous 2009-2010 Ivy POY, 2009-2010 AP All-American Honorable Mention
Stats: (2009-2010) 17.5 ppg, 4 reb, 1.8 ast, 43% 3PT, 83% FT
Currently: After a year bouncing between Italy and the NBA D-League, Wittman is currently unsigned for the 2011-2012 season.
Ryan Wittman “Facts”: The UN Security Council has determined that Ryan Wittman’s jump shot is a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Poor shooters can’t hit the broad side of a barn; Ryan Wittman hits all sides with a single shot (Courtesy of ryanwittmanfacts.com).

F – Jon Jaques – 6-7, 220 lbs. – Senior
Accolades: Tri-captain with fellow senior Jeff Foote and Alex Tyler, burst onto the scene as a Senior after seeing limited time over the first 3 years
Stats: 8 ppg, 3.4 reb, 1.2 stl, 1 ast, 48% 3 PT
Currently: A year of pro-ball in Israel was enough on the other side of the pond for Jaques who will now turn to coaching and join the staff at Stevens Tech in New Jersey.
Clutch Moments: The first meaningful minutes of his career came when he stepped onto the floor to sink game-icing free-throws vs. Drexel. Just a few games later, scored 20 pts to lead Cornell over St. John’s in MSG.

C – Jeff Foote – 7-0, 265 lbs. – Senior
Accolades: 2-time Ivy Defensive Player of the Year, 2009-2010 First Team All-Ivy, two-time second team All-Ivy
Stats: 12.4 ppg, 8.1 reb, 2.3 ast, 1.9 blk, 63% FG
Currently: Unsigned after playing his first professional year in Israel and Spain.
Poster Collection Includes: Kyle Singler (Duke – 2010 NBA Draft), Jon Leuer (Wisconsin), Arinze Onuaku (Syracuse), Wes Johnson (Syracuse – Lottery Pick), JaMychal Green (Alabama).

Head Coach – Steve Donahue – 10th Year with Cornell
Bio: Donahue won the Ivy title in each of his final three years with the Red. After a run to the Sweet Sixteen to close the 2009-2010 season Donahue jumped to the ACC, accepting the job at Boston College.

Bench
In the rotation: Alex Tyler (captain, 2 year starter), Geoff Reeves (2 year starter, lock-down defender), Max Groebe (UMass transfer, deadly shooter), Adam Wire (inch-for-inch likely the top defender on a team that included the Ivy League Defensive POY), Mark Coury (starter at Kentucky, relegated to the bench at Cornell, known for his toughness and defense), Errick Peck (Freshman Phenom)

The Case for the Red
The glass slipper never quite fit for the Red during the 2009-2010 season because Cornell was no Cinderella. Legitimately one of the top 25 teams in the country, the Red were thrown onto the national scene after a near-miss at top-ranked Kansas. The non-conference slate included wins over St. John’s, Alabama, UMass, St. Joe’s and La Salle. The conference schedule was a 13 game victory lap (with a 1-game hiccup) that made the rest of the league look like a group of high school teams. Highlights included a 36-point blowout of a 21-win Harvard team, a 14-point average margin of victory in league play and carrying the league back to national prominence with the Ancient Eight’s first Sweet Sixteen appearance in 30 years.

Harvard has an uber-athletic, highly-experienced squad returning this year, but the depth, talent, cohesion and intangibles just don’t match up. Anything short of a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament should be a disappointment for the Crimson this year, but in a one-game playoff there’s no question that 2009-2010 Cornell comes away victorious. Let’s just remember how clutch Harvard is in one-game playoffs…

CRB:

Harvard Crimson

G – Oliver McNally – 6-3, 180 lbs. – Senior
Accolades: Two-year co-captain
Stats: 10.1 ppg, 3.3 rebs, 3.1 ast, 49.1% FG, 44.2% 3PT, 92.6% FT
Worth Noting: Playing in the shadow of somewhat flashier company, McNally is the heart and soul of the Crimson, often supplying the biggest buckets in the biggest moments, like his game-winning runner at the Palestra last season or his last second free throw to force overtime at Yale in 2010.

G – Brandyn Curry – 6-1, 195 lbs. – Junior
Accolades: 2010-11 Second Team All-Ivy, 2010-11 Academic All-Ivy
Stats: 9.3 ppg, 5.9 ast, 3.8 rebs, 2.3 A-T ratio, 73.3% FT, 42.3% FG
Worth Noting: A crafty lefty and a sizzling ball-handler, Curry is the Crimson’s quarterback on offense and a lockdown perimeter defender.

F – Christian Webster – 6-5, 205 lbs. – Junior
Accolades: 2010-11 Honorable Mention All-Ivy
Stats: 13.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.5 ast, 89.4% FT, 43.5% FG, 39.9% 3PT
Worth Noting: Webster is a slasher from the wing, who is often tasked with jumpstarting the Crimson offense by attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line.

F – Kyle Casey – 6-7, 225 lbs. – Junior
Accolades: 2009-10 Ivy League ROY, 2010-11 Second Team All-Ivy, 2009-10 Honorable Mention All-Ivy
Stats: 10.7 ppg, 6.0 rebs, 1.1 blks, 50.5% FG, 78.6% FT
Worth Noting: An athletic scorer, Casey improved on a stalwart freshman campaign despite being hampered by a broken foot for much of last season.

C – Keith Wright – 6-8, 240 lbs. – Senior
Accolades: Two-time co-captain, 2010-11 Ivy League POY, 2010-11 Unanimous First Team All-Ivy, 2010-11 AP All-America Honorable Mention
Stats: 14.8 ppg, 8.3 rebs, 1.8 blk, 1.5 ast, 58.4% FG, 70.4% FT
Worth Noting: Wright made the leap last season from good big man to veritable paint monster; a willing passer and skilled finisher, he was a nightmare matchup for each opponent and the foundation of Harvard’s historically efficient offense.

Head Coach – Tommy Amaker – Fifth Year with Harvard
Bio: After stints at Seton Hall and Michigan, Amaker arrived in Cambridge, and, ever since, he has piloted Harvard’s meteoric rise to the top of the Ivy League standings. He is one of the most in-demand coaches for top college basketball programs.

Bench
In the rotation (projected): Laurent Rivard (standout sharp-shooter, looking to build on a superb rookie campaign), Wesley Saunders (much-heralded freshman who will try to crack the rotation), Kenyatta Smith (see Saunders), Steve Moundou-Missi (see Smith), Jonah Travis (see Moundou-Missi), Ugo Okam (giant center with developing skills and five-fouls to give), Matt Brown (energy guy and defensive specialist), Andrew Van Nest (serviceable big man who likes to launch the three), Jeff Georgatos (steady frontcourt presence who can hold it down in the post)

The Case for the Crimson

There is a growing trend among sportswriters to christen champions in the preseason. Considering the fates of the Miami Heat, the Boston Red Sox, and the Philadelphia Eagles, I don’t want to join that chorus and anoint the 2011-12 Harvard basketball team the successors to the 2009-10 Big Red. But for the sake of discussion (and out of enthusiasm for the upcoming season), I’m willing to consider a hypothetical one-game playoff between the two teams.

Can Harvard win? Yes. I don’t have the luxury of pointing to a list of accomplishments because, well, they haven’t accomplished anything as of yet. But Curry-McNally-Webster-Casey-Wright match up with Dale-Reeves-Jaques-Wittman-Foote at least as well as the Penn team that authored the lone blemish on Cornell’s league record and the Princeton squad that took the Big Red down to the wire twice. I’ll grant that those midseason games lack the urgency of a one-game playoff, and Cornell would likely be at its best in this imaginary playoff against Harvard. But I still think the Crimson has a decent shot. Here’s how I see it going down:

Foote is the Big Red’s big advantage (literally). His size was almost impossible to counter, especially with the Ivies’ lack of size on the bench. However, this Harvard team is unique in its ability to make Foote earn his points. It has at least eight different players that it can put on the big man—that’s forty fouls on a sub-60 percent free-throw shooter. On the other end, the Crimson has the offensive talent to challenge Foote in the paint and perhaps put him in foul trouble. In the backcourt, McNally and Curry are arguably the equals to Dale and Reeves (if that seems outlandish, please just wait to see the kind of year Curry has). That leaves Wittman and Casey. I know Wittman is a demigod in Ithaca, but, despite whatever memes you’ve created for him, he still missed 57.4 percent of his threes. I think a healthy Casey can bring as much to the table as the Big Red POY, though I guess this season will be the true test for that statement.

Of course, a Crimson victory is predicated on a lot of breaks falling its way, but none of them seem too farfetched, no? How do you see The Game playing out tactically and strategically?

One more question: Without trying to sound controversial, I personally think the Big Red dynasty has been overly mythologized. Of course, they won all of those games, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, and they deserve every bit of the credit that has come their way. But other unheralded mid-majors have advanced beyond the first weekend—Richmond and VCU last year, St. Mary’s and Northern Iowa in 2010, Davidson and Western Kentucky in 2008, etc.—all of which were stellar teams, but these squads can easily be thought to have “outperformed” their expected result. Yet, for some reason, Ivy fans have taken it for granted that Cornell was exactly as good as its No. 17 ranking. Does even a little part of you think maybe the Big Red was fortunate to beat Temple and Wisconsin (despite the one-sidedness of those contests)? Are these just the sour grapes of a Harvard fan who still hasn’t gotten over that 36-point shit-kicking?

SA:

First of all, let’s take a look at that final point…”fortunate”?

Quite honestly, Temple and Wisconsin were both fortunate that the score didn’t truly represent how one sided those match-ups were. The shellackings that the 2009-2010 Red put on their NCAA tournament foes in the first two rounds were far from fortunate.

A comparison to 2010 Richmond (13-3 in the Atlantic 10, regular season wins over Purdue, Arizona State, Seton Hall and Wake Forest) is welcomed. Richmond looked like a Sweet Sixteen team and was a Sweet Sixteen team.

I’ll take the Northern Iowa comparison too. A team that lost just five games all year, was under-seeded because of the conference it plays in, had a seven foot center who gave BCS big men fits, knocked down shots from every part of the floor and played Kansas tight – sound familiar? Oh yeah. Cornell and Northern Iowa from 2009-2010 were comparable teams, were legit top-25 teams and would both beat 2011-2012 Harvard nine times out of ten.

Davidson 2008 – close calls against top-10 teams in the non-conference, dominate in their league, show their true colors against the big conferences in the Tournament. Davidson was also deserving of it’s spot in the final rankings.

VCU went from a slightly above average CAA team to a Final Four participant. Yes, agreed, they outperformed in March (April finally brought them back down). Cornell was no VCU. There is no Final Four banner in the rafters of Newman Arena, but there were also no 11-loss regular season and no consistent slip ups against the likes of Georgia State, James Madison or Drexel. There should be no questions that Cornell 2009-2010 is no VCU.

Cornell was also no St. Mary’s. See the match-ups against a one-year-away Richmond team and an imploding Villanova squad if you want to understand what it means to be fortunate in March.

Western Kentucky? They needed OT to beat Drake and then got 13-seeded San Diego in Round 2. Again, see Western Kentucky’s 2008 NCAA Tournament for an example of fortune.

Cornell was not fortunate. March of 2009 was merely a continuation of what they had done since November.

Let’s digress from the Cornell – (insert successful mid-major team here) comparisons. The real debate is Cornell vs. Harvard.

In the frontcourt: Hack-a-Foote still gives the 7-footer a chance at the line and even a 60% FT shooter makes a majority of his shots. Also – suggesting Van Nest or Okam in the post against Foote? Please, please, Tommy Amaker, make that mistake again. On the defensive end, Donahue’s constant substitutions between Foote, Coury, Tyler and Wire – not to mention his man, 1-3-1, 2-3, 3-2 and match-up zones – and Wright and Casey would get nothing in the paint. Wright finds foul trouble much to quickly against lesser, smaller foes. Foote, with 4 inches and 25 pounds on him would be virtually unstoppable. Casey is a nice piece but he has neither the strength to match Coury or Tyler in the post, nor the perimeter play to match Jaques. Forget Wittman, Casey wouldn’t be tabbed with that responsibility.

On the wing: Webster on Wittman might be the best matchup Harvard would get. Webster’s length and athleticism could frustrate Wittman on the perimeter, but Webster is a glorified slasher and an overrated defender. Wittman would get his in transition or off a quick release from the Red’s ball movement. Best case for Harvard: Wittman puts up 15 points on 15 shots and Webster manages to get a few buckets in transition to make up for his lack of legitimate half court production against such a long, smart, athletically-underrated team.

In the backcourt: McNally on Wroblewski could be a toss up. McNally has more size. Ski has the passing ability. Both have stability, consistency. The only difference is that McNally is asked to take on a bigger role with his teammates around him faltering. Against Cornell’s best on ball defender he can’t get much.

Dale vs. Curry is almost a joke. Curry may have the quickness but in every other facet of the game Dale has the edge – shooting, off the dribble, on the boards, generally leading a team…the list goes on. If he puts up 17 on John Wall and 20 on the combination of Jeremy Lin, Curry (as a freshman) and anyone else the Crimson had in the backcourt, please, please bring on Curry on his own. Turn the TV on because Dale is about to go off.

On the bench: Talent, experience and cohesion (Red) vs. unproven, yet highly touted, underclassmen (Harvard). Good luck Harvard.

A neutral site keeps this game within 20 and interesting until midway through the second half. That’s when Wright is sitting with 4 fouls apiece, Van Nest and Okam have been thrashed for a few too many and the freshman are tabbed with fighting the top true center the mid-majors have seen since Andrew Bogut.

Yes, Harvard is talented and could steal one out of 10 from Cornell – that was better than Penn’s chances and they pulled it off in the Palestra – so maybe, just maybe, in Lavietes the Crimson could too. The Princeton comparison is ridiculous. A slow-it-down team that relies on steady coaching is a far cry from Harvard’s up and down style.

Keith Wright and Harvard look like a poor man’s Levoy Allen and Temple who the good-not-lucky Red beat handily in March. Cornell wins going away, 78-63.

CRB:

I only brought up the possibility that 2009-10 Cornell is remembered too fondly in the context of this playoff, not in order to besmirch the best Ivy team of this decade. But since I’m the lone wolf crying in the wilderness on this point, I guess we’ll drop the argument.

In the frontcourt: I witnessed Foote’s abuse of Van Nest in 2010—it wasn’t pretty. So believe me, I don’t have any delusions of Van Nest, Okam, or any of the freshmen somehow stopping “the top true center the mid-majors have seen since Andrew Bogut.” They are perfectly capable of fouling Foote though, and the visual of the 7-footer standing on the free-throw line does not inspire much fear in the heart of this Harvard fan. If the Crimson loses by Foote hitting his freebies, so be it. Also, I think you might be underrating Casey’s impact. Sure, you can say he doesn’t have Tyler’s strength or Jaques’ “perimeter play,” but I’d argue that Tyler doesn’t have Casey’s “perimeter play” and Jaques doesn’t have the big man’s strength. What’s to prevent Casey from exposing their weaknesses as opposed to the other way around? Lastly, to clarify, I didn’t mean to suggest that Wittman and Casey would be matched up in my initial Wittman/Casey comparison; I meant to contrast only their production.

On the wing: I’m glad you afford Webster as much respect as you do. He’s the least flashy of Harvard’s contributors and sometimes overlooked, but without Webster’s wing play, the Crimson’s inside-out offense becomes one dimensional. I’ve never considered Webster a great defender, and Wittman is so tall with such a quick release that I don’t see him being all that effective stopping the shooter. I’d hope for the kind of 15-point off night from Wittman that you’re describing.

In the backcourt: As pleased as I am over your feelings on Webster, I’m just as disappointed in your assessment of Curry. The kid can play. He’s not as essential to Harvard as Wright, but I think you could argue that he was the Crimson’s best player throughout league play last year. Your flippant dismissal of him as a “joke” really only conveys to me that you haven’t seen him play enough. A junior, his story is only half written at this point, but I would not at all be surprised if, when all is said and done, his mantel has some of the same hardware as Dale’s. I would absolutely turn on my TV and get my popcorn ready for the Dale-Curry matchup. I don’t think it would be nearly as one-sided as you imagine.

On the bench: I’ll concede any and all points in this area because, at this stage, the Harvard freshmen are a relative unknown.

Coaching: Amaker knows how to run a program, but, fairly or unfairly, his Xs-and-Os have always been called into question. Donahue’s bona fides are stronger, and he is more familiar with the 2009-10 team than Amaker is with his 2011-12 squad. Coach D probably has the edge in a game situation.

I’m surprised that you think Cornell would win nine of out ten times. If you wanted a number from me, I would have said two out of three and a mean outcome of Cornell 75, Harvard 71 (I hope commenters won’t hesitate to post their predictions below). That’s no slight to the Big Red, I just think this Harvard team can be that good. If the Crimson manages to live up to the expectations for this season, it would be interesting to revisit this argument again in the spring.

SA:

Curry is no joke. Watching him twice in person last year, I thought as a sophomore he was the most impressive member of a highly-talented Harvard squad. It is the Dale-Curry match-up that I think would be a joke. My memory of Dale may be tainted because his final three games in a Cornell uniform were likely the best three games of his career, but if Dale were to play in his NCAA Tournament form (which I’ll mention once again was good enough to outplay John Wall, Trevon Hughes and Juan Fernandez), then I think this is no contest.

Nonetheless, you bring up a good point. This analysis completely depends on the time of year that we’re talking about. Cornell in November 2009 was very different from Cornell in March 2010. I’m sure the same will be true for this year’s Harvard team. Cornell in March vs. Harvard in November is a no-brainer for me. Cornell in March vs. Harvard in March could be a very different story.

If the young bench develops and Wright, Casey and Co. continue to improve, I could easily see Harvard raising a Sweet Sixteen banner of their own in Cambridge. If the team is virtually the same as the one we saw last year, I see a quick exit from the tournament. Regardless, the fact that Harvard has the talent and experience to even warrant this discussion says something about the Crimson’s outlook for the year.

The one thing that struck me watching Harvard last year is that they looked like a BCS conference team minus a couple inches. Keith Wright at 6-10, Kyle Casey at 6-9, Christian Webster at 6-7, Oliver McNally at 6-5 and Brandyn Curry at 6-2 – that’s a scary starting five in any conference in America. The athleticism and talent is there at every position to compete with just about anyone in the country. They can score in bunches, defend and force turnovers, get up and down the floor like a major conference school. With a couple added inches this team would be a top-25 team all year.

The Cornell 2009 – Harvard 2011 should be an interesting argument in the Spring once we have a better sense of this year’s group in Cambridge. Who knows, maybe I’ll be eating my words if Harvard manages to run the table in the Ivy League and make a little noise in the nonconference.

Either way, basketball season is upon us. Midnight Madness publicly kicked off the season for Harvard earlier this weekend and Cornell faithful will get their first glimpse of their team in less than a week at the annual Red-White scrimmage. Regardless of who you root for, with the hardwood squeaking once again and slates wiped completely clean, its tough to complain this time of year.

CRB:

Absolutely. This frivolous comparison is just one of the many subplots in what should be a fascinating season. I wish you the worst of luck, my friend.

3 thoughts on “The Great Debate: Cornell 2009-10 vs. Harvard 2011-12

  1. Man, let’s have a standing appointment to do this comparison again in March. There are just too many unknowns for the Crimson today.

  2. Admittedly, a lot of early season news has been about Harvard (Keith Wright being on the Wooden Award Top 50, being the only school to have a Midnight Madness event, virtually all publications picking them as heavy favorites), but we will have plenty of coverage in the next couple weeks on all of the schools.

    Starting next Monday, we’ll be previewing all eight schools in depth. In November, we’ll be putting out our official predictions for standings and awards.

Leave a Comment