Season Wrap-Up: Cornell Big Red

The Big Red will go limping into a critical offseason this summer as the young squad tries to continue to improve after a season derailed by injuries.
The Big Red will go limping into a critical offseason this summer as a young squad tries to improve after a season derailed by injuries.

It was a disappointing season for the Big Red.

Let’s clarify that: a disappointing season with an asterisk next to it. It’s hard to boil the 2013 campaign down to one word. At its peak, Cornell was a legitimate contender, a 5-3 team that was one Errick Peck three pointer away from starting 6-2 and turning the Ivy race upside down. Even with the failed comeback against Harvard, Cornell at one point established itself as an upper echelon team poised for its third straight year of improvement under Bill Courtney. At rock bottom, Cornell was arguably the weakest team in the Ancient Eight. Losing its final six contests, a 1-6 conference record at Newman Arena, and a shared sixth place finish isn’t going to turn any heads or garner any optimism for the future, but, remember, the asterisk. It would be unfair to completely judge Cornell on its poor finish. Yes, a golden opportunity was squandered, but the Big Red ended its season with one hand tied behind its back.

Johnathan Gray missed the final six games for undisclosed reasons that have recently pointed to eligibility issues. Shonn Miller, a first team all-Ivy selection, missed the final four games with a shoulder injury. Devin Cherry missed the final four games with an ankle injury. Galal Cancer missed the final two games of the season with reports swirling that he left the program. No one is going to feel sorry for Cornell though, and the missing pieces aren’t something that I expect even the Red itself to use as an excuse for its finish. The fact of the matter remains that losing 51.3% of its scoring and 45.8% of its rebounding production as late as Cornell did just isn”t a winning formula in a conference as competitive as the Ivy League this season. Ivy teams were too good and too balanced for a team as wounded as Cornell to compete.

Take away whatever you want from this season. For me, I don’t want to overstate the highs or dwell too much on the lows. Like many seasons in the pre-WFD era (Wittman-Foote-Dale), it was another year the Red started well behind the prohibitive favorites and finished somewhere in the middle of the pack. There’s no doubt the recent success of Cornell is causing fans to forget the patient approach they took when Steve Donahue built his program. Yes, now that Cornell has been there, it’s different, and Courtney may not have the same leash from both the administration and the fan base that Coach D had in his early years. Whether the chatter around the program is warranted or not, the bottom line is that you’re questioned until you win. That goes for both players and coaches, and on the bench, Courtney hasn’t won anything yet. Until he or any other coach for that matter does, the questions will continue to mount. The good news for Courtney is that the puzzle pieces have started to come together. The bad news is that the picture isn’t yet clear and someone threw out the box. Between now and that first home-and-home game against Columbia in January 2014, a lot of work needs to be done for that 500 piece jigsaw puzzle to make sense.

Cornell has arguably what could soon become the most formidable duo in the league. Shonn Miller is already a top five player in the conference. He is as elite of a defender as the league has seen and has an offensive game that showed tremendous strides in his sophomore year. Miller has played the role of floor stretching 4-man, something he is too explosive for. If he can continue to develop his interior game, he will be as dangerous as they come in the paint. Nolan Cressler is a flat out scorer. There’s little he can’t do on the offensive end. He can shoot, he can create for himself, and he can get in the paint. Looking ahead, his defensive game will have to develop. The great news for Cornell is that no one is a finished product after his freshman season. If Cressler can become a better defender and a better ball handler, Courtney will not hesitate to play him the full 40 minutes and Cressler will soon become a first team all-league player.

There are no question marks surrounding Miller and Cressler. That’s about as sure as you can get in this league. However, beyond the two rocks, there’s very little that won’t be questioned. When Cornell played a traditional lineup, Eitan Chemerinski and Josh Figini saw nearly 100% of the minutes at center. When Cornell was fully healthy, Miles Asafo-Adjei and Galal Cancer played nearly 100% of the minutes at point guard. Those four guys won’t be walking through the locker room next year. At guard, Cornell still has Cressler, Devin Cherry, and Dom Scelfo, but none of the three are pass-first true point guards who are accustomed to being primary ball handlers. Incoming freshmen Robert Hatter and Dez Fleming appear to better fit that mold, but that’s a lot to ask of a freshman. The last two freshmen to step on the court in red and make that kind of impact at the point guard spot were Louis Dale and Chris Wroblewski, two pretty special players. Not to say Hatter and Fleming can’t get to that level, but to expect them to have that type of impact right out of the gate is unfair.

The center position, while by no stretch secure, is a bit more defined. The long and rangy Deion Giddens is your prototypical Ivy League center. A bit undersized, but with a summer in the weight room to add to his 6’9, 202 pound frame, Giddens has a chance to see significant minutes. We saw enough of Giddens at the end of this year for his 20 rebounds and 9 blocks in 51 minutes to peak our interest. He has the potential to dominate defensively, especially next to Miller, but will have to develop his offensive game to fully gain the trust of the coaching staff. Beyond Giddens, it’s a cast of characters from the end of the bench. Time in the program, a summer with direction from the training staff, motivation from the wide open rotation, and guys like Dave LaMore and Braxton Bunce could find their niche.

Selection Sunday has only just passed and we’re thinking about and trying to break down the 2014 roster. It’s a position you never want your team to be in. A quick glance around the league and it’s easy to say Cornell is again destined for the middle of the conference. There”s too much pencil and not enough sharpie on Courtney’s lineup card to say otherwise. It will be a big summer and an important non-conference slate for Cornell to provide clarity as to whose name will appear in big bold black ink next to Miller and Cressler. It won’t be easy putting the unknown around the known and coaching it into a contender, but that’s the task for Courtney and his staff. Do

it well and Cornell will be a top half team. Struggle, and a tie for sixth might be more than a one-time thing.

15 thoughts on “Season Wrap-Up: Cornell Big Red

  1. Is there a specific reason that you wonder whether “Courtney has the same leash from the administration that Coach Donahue had in his early years”? I’m not suggesting that he does or doesn’t; I’m curious whether you have an opinion. We talk all the time about the long, perhaps unbounded, leash Amaker has from his administration; we forget that the other seven coaches may or may not have their latitude changed over time as well. In general, coaches get more academic wiggle room early in their tenures; is Courtney starting off with less than usual?

    • I think Courtney has a shorter leash than Donahue had. In fact, I think every coach in the Ivy league has a shorter leash that Donahue had. I don’t mean that as a knock on what any coach has accomplished. The landscape of the conference is much different now than it was in the early 2000s. I’ve heard Donahue multiple times, both on and off the record, express his gratitude to Andy Noel for believing in his vision and not having a quick trigger after his 32-76 record after 3 seasons (9-33 in conference). I think after what Cornell was able to accomplish from 2008-2010 and the run Harvard is in the midst of now signals to fans and administrators that the tight grip Princeton and Penn once had on the league is gone. Anyone can win this league, and a lot of schools are one or two pieces away. That competitiveness and parity equates to a shorter leash.

  2. The only comment with which I am in total agreement is “goodbye to the tight grip.” The old tired cliché that “anyone can win this League” is more talking point than analysis. I know, I know: “Toothless is hurting because the Tigers are hitting the wall,” but Harvard is 3 or 4 “pieces” ahead of everybody. Cornell’s great teams did not build a program. Amaker lost two CAPTAINS, for goodness sakes, started a FRESHMAN POY candidate at PG and now gets the two captains back. The result: third title in a row and counting. If those of you who are able to recruit in the same AI pool as Amaker don’t start signing some people, just turn out the lights when you leave.

    • If I’m a Princeton fan, I’m really worried for the future of my program (sorry Toothless). Sidney Johnson’s abrupt departure for Fairfield in 2011 was a huge red flag that he didn’t think he could have sustained success at his alma mater. The possibility that the Tigers’ athletic department refused a 2013 postseason bid to the CBI or CIT because they weren’t willing to foot the bill for a home game is just another piece of evidence that Princeton isn’t willing to do what it takes to commit to having a winning program in this new generation of Ivy basketball. (Note: This is speculation. The team may have gathered and chosen to decline a postseason bid, which in my opinion is an equally frightening prospect for Princeton basketball, but that’s a different story.)

      We could sit around and debate AI policies for months–and we probably will– but being unable to retain a young, successful alum coach who leaves to take a coaching job that is a step down in prestige, and now perhaps passing up the possibility of nationally televised postseason basketball is another bad sign for the direction of the orange and black.

      Surely, the Tigers will fall back in the standings next season with Hummer’s departure and the noise from disgruntled alumni will only grow louder. As a non-Quaker or Princetonian or Harvardian, it has been easy to dismiss recent complaints with the Crimson’s rise to power as bitter whining from the Old Guard. But here we are now, at the dawn of a Cantab dynasty. The Princeton administration seems frighteningly reluctant to join the arms race and may be left in the dust if things don’t change soon.

      Just two cents from a league observer. I’m sure there are many Tiger fans on this site who have a more informed view of what’s going on inside the program. I’d love to hear some more insight from those folks.

      • The Princeton administration does seem very “reluctant to join the arms race” and they may indeed be “left in the dust if things don’t change soon.” You say that as though it’s Princeton which is doing things the wrong way. That’s how much the League has changed.

        This League was formed to do sports a certain way. That’s why the conference exists, the only reason. For five decades, that’s pretty much how things went, arguably with a bit of a deviation in the 1970s. But the League responded by implementing the AI and academic principles were restored.

        Today, academic principles are being challenged again and you criticize the program (one of two — I’d put Yale in there, too) which most still conforms to the founding philosophy of the League. That is f**ked up.

        I don’t want Princeton to change. I don’t want Yale to change. I want Harvard to change.

        The League is on a very slippery slope, the same slope which gets reported every week around the country in the form of NCAA violations and recruiting practices which make fans say, “Wow, that’s wrong.”

        It’s time to take a step back and get some perspective, just as the League did before introducing the AI. Either we’re going to stand for something or we’re not. If we’re not, that would be unfortunate but at least we will have made that decision together.

        Right now, we’ve got eight programs each deciding what their own ethical code is and then going in their own direction. At this rate, the Ivy League will just be another conference in a decade. Maybe that’s inevitable. Maybe that’s what some people want. I can tell you that’s not what Harvard wants. Harvard wants the status quo: the Crimson recruiting Rivals and Scout four-star players while everybody else is doing business the old fashioned way.

        • May I ask what must be a dumb question? Is the administration of the AI a matter left to each school? Is it on the honor system? Does the Ivy League play any role in the matter? (I guess that’s three dumb questions.)

    • Re Toothless Tiger:

      Let me clarify. I never thought any team could have won this year and I don’t think any team can win next year. What I meant is that the thought of two non-Princeton/Penn teams putting together 3 straight (possibly more in Harvard’s case) title years virtually consecutively was unheard of in the early 2000s. Look at the league now and look at the league ten years ago and a lot more teams are a only few pieces away from doing the same.

  3. Harvard is winning because it has a good coach who knows how to recruit; and this is for the first time in the school’s history. End of story. Harvard has some built-in advantages, but abusing the A1 system isn’t one of them. I think Yale and Brown have figured it out. Dartmouth had a much better year. Penn and Cornell have improving talent. I still think Kyle Smith can coach. Princeton has a great school and winning system. This will continue to be a very competitive league for years to come.

    • I disagree with this, but of course Mr. Welch and I have a long history of disagreement. Oh, I’m sorry. Was that your AI falling?

      The AQ

    • Mr. Welch, I find your comments about Harvard very interesting.

      Harvard has recruited more and better recruits in the last five years than the entire Ivy League has recruited in any half decade in its history. So, if the only difference is that Tommy Amaker “knows how to recruit,” then you are implying that Fran Dunphy, Pete Carril, Steve Donahue, John Thompson and James Jones don’t know how to recruit. Because Amaker has brought in more highly rated talent than any of those guys did.

      Occam’s Razor would suggest that Amaker takes more leeway with the AI than Dunphy et al. That’s one explanation, which happens to be consistent with a great deal of circumstantial evidence as cited by others. But your counterproposal is simply that Amaker is a good coach who knows how to recruit. Why do you suppose that Amaker couldn’t win at Michigan? Did he suddenly become a better coach at Harvard? Or was it because, at Michigan, Amaker competed on a level playing field and couldn’t win without his opponents being constrained by the AI?

  4. My turn to clarify. I don’t know that Harvard is abusing the system. With respect, Thomas, I harbor some serious suspicions based on admittedly circumstantial evidence, but “knowing how to recruit” in this day and age has some ugly implications. Princeton is not unique in providing extraordinarily broad athletic opportunities for a relatively small student population, but the result is a finite number of AI slots to be allocated among “too many” programs. Since none of the sports programs is a revenue provider no coach has any greater leverage than any other, even when the AD is a basketball guy. Harvard’s “built in advantage” is an administration committed to basketball and tolerant of the boosterism culture that has become part and parcel of the collegiate scene.. Whether things change there is a matter of Harvard politics. Bruno: my sources suggest that the team did indeed take an internal poll on the post-season issue and decided to stay home. Hummer was in the minority, but respected the judgment of his teammates. I am not thrilled personally but I do not believe the prospects for the program are hurt significantly.

    • All of you make some good points. Perhaps I am guilty of an emotional defense of my alma mater. Every Ivy League School could fill its ranks with students with perfect academic records ( 4.0 GPA’s and perfect standardized test scores), but I’d want no part of such a student body. I’d rather have a college with people who are exceptional in a wide range of areas, and with a great variety of experiences. Minimum standards are great as long as they allow for some exceptions. How do you measure intelligence? Sometimes that can’t be captured in an SAT score. Call me naive, but that’s what I believe.

      • I think you’ll find broad agreement among Ivy alumni that most don’t want their alma maters filled entirely with valedictorians and kids with 1600 SAT scores. Most alumni want their schools populated by interesting, energetic students with a broad range of skills and passions. That includes bright young men who happen to be excellent basketball players.

        But that has very little to do with what Harvard is doing today.

        Academic Index rules limit the number of low AI students which can be recruited across all sports aside from football, which has a separate banding system. Historically, every Ivy spread its low AI recruits among a number of sports. Usually, basketball, hockey, lacrosse and baseball got the lion’s share. Today, Harvard is allocating its low AI recruits disproportionately toward basketball. Some would say this is cheating; some would say it’s only taking advantage of a loophole which exists for all. But at a minimum, it violates a gentlemen’s agreement which previously precluded this sort of behavior for more than five decades.

        In addition, one-third of every student’s AI score consists of their class rank, which many high schools no longer report. When a student does not have a reported class rank, that student’s class rank for AI purposes is approximated using his or her GPA, but there is noise in this element of the AI, whereas there is little noise in their SAT score. So, in general, AI scores have over time become more fuzzy, less precise measures. Schools have more wiggle room today than when the AI system was invented in the early 1980’s.

        Harvard has signaled its newfound aggressiveness under Amaker with a long list of behaviors described in many other forums: the New York Times article, the Washington Post article, the NCAA violations, recruiting high school junior varsity players who have high AI scores, recruiting Siyani Chambers in eighth grade. . . they’ve been discussed at length elsewhere. With that degree of aggressiveness, you can imagine that it doesn’t take too much paranoia for some observers to think that Harvard is pushing the envelope on the one-third of all students’ AI scores which is subject to wiggle room anyway.

        To summarize, I doubt that many people have a problem with Harvard deciding to compete more seriously in basketball. Some people on this board who are uncomfortable with Harvard’s success may simply be jealous, but I think that it would be wrong to dismiss the many who genuinely feel that Harvard is bending the rules — to the point and, in some cases, beyond the point where Harvard is cheating.

        Please don’t dismiss the naysayers out of hand. Harvard is doing a lot of things which have never been done by an Ivy school before. One can be 100% in favor of a stronger Ivy League overall and 100% in favor of more parity in the League — and still sincerely believe that Harvard’s success is ill gotten, that Harvard is cheating. And for some of those who believe Harvard is indeed cheating, the Crimson’s success is not a sign of progress but, rather, a sad development for the Ivy League.

        I think that the reflexive instinct of many Harvard fans is “an emotional defense of their alma mater.” While alumni loyalty should always be admired, it should not be determinative. Don’t just defend Harvard because you are an alumnus (which I am as well, by the way). Look carefully at what Harvard is doing and then decide whether that is behavior you admire.

        If Penn (or Princeton or Cornell, etc.) were doing what Harvard is now doing, as a Harvard alumnus, would you say to yourself, “I’m glad that Penn is so committed to basketball”? I doubt it.

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