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.