In 2012-13: 13-18, 5-9, T-6th place, No Postseason.
Believe it or not, there are teams not named Harvard playing basketball in the Ivy League this season. I know, shocking. One of these teams is the kids from Ithaca. I use kids almost literally. That’s what you’re going to see a lot of this season from Cornell: kids. Robert Hatter, Nolan Cressler, Devin Cherry, Dwight Tarwater, and David Onuorah are Cornell’s opening day starters, a lineup that includes two freshman and just one senior.
There are a lot of firsts here. This is the first time since the start of the 2008-09 season that Cornell did not start at least two seniors. That night, Jason Battle was the lone fourth-year player in the starting lineup, contributing four points in 17 minutes to a ten point victory over South Dakota. This is the first time since the start of the 2006-07 season that Cornell has had a freshman in its starting lineup. That night Ryan Wittman and Louis Dale combined for 25 points en route to top Northwestern.
At a quick glance, you can make the connection between the 2006-07 campaign and the season about to tip off. However, that year, Cornell started an all-Ivy big man in Andrew Naeve and had a former starter coming off the bench in Graham Dow. Looking up and down the current roster, I don’t see the equivalent of a Naeve or a Dow. On this team, even the upperclassmen are underclassmen. The four man senior class includes Jake Matthews who is returning to the court for the first time since his freshman year and Montez Blair, a track and field All American just added to the roster, playing organized basketball for the first time since his high school days.
We need to go back to the 2001-02 season to find a team that more closely resembles what Bill Courtney has this season. On November 16, 2001, Steve Donahue sent freshmen Cody Toppert and Chris Vandenberg on the floor to start the season at Canisus College. That day, the Cornell freshmen played 55 more minutes than the two seniors who saw the floor and outscored them by 16 points. This is a lot closer to what you’ll see from Cornell this year and it’s extremely uncharacteristic for an Ivy League roster. To put some perspective around how unique this is, the same night Toppert and Vandenberg took the floor as Cornell freshman, 357 miles south, assistant coach Mike Blaine was playing the first game of his junior season at Johns Hopkins, a game he started, played 22 minutes, and contributed four points and six rebounds.
What you just read was my long-winded way of saying I have no idea what to expect out of Cornell this season, not a clue. It’s hard for me to break down players I’ve seen nothing but high school YouTube clips of and to predict a rotation that even the coaching staff says is a work in-progress. What makes this team even harder to handicap is that its one constant, Shonn Miller, will be in sweats all season. Miller, recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, has elected to sit out the 2013-14 campaign and will seek a fifth year at Cornell.
The loss of Miller is significant. Last season as a sophomore, Miller led the team in scoring, rebounds, steals, blocked shots, and minutes played (despite missing four games) on his way to a unanimous first team all-Ivy selection. With Miller on the floor, Cornell averaged a shade over 66 points per game and gave up 69. In the four games Miller missed, Cornell’s scoring average dipped to 63 points per game.
More eye catching than the dip in scoring is that with Miller hurt, opponents averaged seven more points per game. A ten point swing is significant. A ten point swing is especially significant in a league whose average margin of victory (or defeat) was 10.6 points per game in 2012-13. Yes, admittedly Cornell without Miller is a small sample size, but from the data we have, Courtney is tasked with replacing a guy who affects the game by nearly exactly the average point differential in league contests. I’m not sure he can.
We can go on and on about how Nolan Cressler needs to improve upon his stellar freshman campaign. We can talk about how Devin Cherry needs to play with more poise and consistency or about how key Braxston Bunce’s health will be this season. All of these things matter, but to me this season is all about one thing and the Philadelphia 76ers marketing team said it best. “Together we build.” Cornell fans may not want to see their season outlook compared to a team who’s over/under to start the year was 16.5 wins, but think about it. Courtney has three freshman expected to immediately play significant minutes, a sophomore who is a budding star in this league, and other pieces who might just need a chance. And hey, the “together we build” 76ers took down the Heat and the Bulls in the same week. That’s why you play the games.