The first thought Columbia’s second year head coach, Kyle Smith, expressed after defeating Cornell, 61-56 Saturday night was how true to form the play was of a typical Ivy League game. The biannual matchup between Cornell and Columbia takes the classic Ivy League mold Coach Smith was referring to and brings it to the next level. Every season for two weeks, Bill Courtney and Kyle Smith have nothing to worry about except game planning against its travel partner. There is so much film and so much time, that by game day, it’s nearly impossible to surprise or sneak up on the other. So was it really a surprise that round one of the Cornell-Columbia series ended up being a three point game with just twelve seconds to play? To Kyle Smith, not at all.
We didn’t see the back-and-forth affair that Smith’s comment may have implied. In fact, from the opening tip to the final buzzer, Columbia didn’t give up the lead even once. Both Cornell and Columbia came out trying to control the pace. The Lions are a team that likes to play half-court basketball. They excel when they can set up their offense and run sets that were designed specifically for the opponent’s defense. The Red on the other hand, are more of a run-and-gun team. Cornell shines in transition and speeding up the game would take Columbia out of its comfort zone (and not allow Mark Cisco to set up shop in the paint). While early, Cornell won the battle of pace, the Big Red was as cold shooting the ball as the Ithaca winters. Mid-way through the first half, Cornell was just 2-15 from the floor. Despite failing to slow Cornell down early, Columbia was able to cling to its lead for the duration Saturday night due to its ability to execute its game plan of utilizing matchup advantages to a ‘T’.
“I think they were like -7 in rebounds, so I made myself think I was going to go in and get every rebound,” said junior center, Mark Cisco. Cisco made it clear that Cornell’s unfavorable rebounding differential this season was emphasized in the Columbia scouting report. He certainly took advantage of the Big Red's weakness, scoring a career high 18 points, and grabbing a career high and Levien Gymnasium record 20 rebounds. Cornell only managed 26 rebounds as a team, losing the battle of the boards by 15. When you allow a guy to control the paint on both ends the way Cisco did and struggle to shoot the ball the way Cornell did, it is almost impossible to come away victorious, and Cornell didn’t. The only reason this one stayed as close as it did was because Cornell's frantic full-court pressure forced the Lions into 18 turnovers, while the Big Red only gave the ball up 10 times.
What is important now is that Bill Courtney and his staff have a full week to prepare yet again for the Lions, this time with the hope of stopping Mark Cisco. What makes Cisco so difficult to face both offensively and defensively is that he’s not only big, but wide, and does a good job of throwing his weight around.
Courtney discussed how to limit Cisco next week in Ithaca. “We must do a better job of blocking out. We put a body on him, but he’s such a big strong player, so he kind of just knocked us out of the way. We have to be much more physical with our bigs.” That’s definitely one way to limit Cisco, but any way you slice it, Cisco will out-body and out-muscle any big Cornell throws down there.
How do you better utilize undersized bigs to defend and limit bigger, bulkier bigs? If I knew, I’d be coaching this team rather than writing about it. Maybe it’s as simple as doing a better job blocking out, as Coach Courtney mentioned. Maybe it’s giving Josh Figini a few more minutes and levering his ability to shoot the basketball on pick-and-pops to draw Cisco out of the paint. Maybe it's something completely different. Whatever it is, Cornell needs to do something to make life difficult for Cisco. Saturday night, he just looked way too comfortable.
Dropping one to Columbia at Levien is a loss that I can live with. Two middle of the pack Ivy teams playing early in the conference season is a tossup. However, being one down in the loss column to its travel partner, and sitting at 1-2 in conference play, this upcoming game is one that Cornell needs to win. Cornell must protect its home floor and pick up its first win against the Lions in the Bill Courtney era. All eyes are on Coach Courtney and his staff to see what they draw up with a week to prepare for this Lions team.