It really wasn’t that long ago that Cornell Basketball could be uttered with sincerity in the same sentence as the likes of Duke, Kentucky, Syracuse, and Michigan State. Now, just four short years later, Cornell comparisons have fallen to the company of Grambling State, Southern Utah, and Lamar. Of course, that’s what happens when you go from the Sweet Sixteen to a 1-13 non conference record faster than you can say Wroblewski or Chemerinski.
I write it again because it’s stark. 1-13, what do you do with that? In theory, it’s simple. You change.
Bill Courtney’s run-and-gun brand of basketball is far from what Cornell loyalists saw from Steve Donahue’s teams for a decade. No one is saying fast can’t work in the Ivy League. In fact, it can, and it has. Just look at Harvard. Cornell is built to play fast; athletic guards in Hatter, Cressler, and Cherry and bigs who can run the floor in Tarwater and Onuorah. It works in theory, but clearly not in execution, at least for Cornell. The difference is defense. Harvard can defend. The Crimson give up a league low 60.6 points per game. Cornell is struggling on the defensive end, giving up a league leading 81.1 points to opposing teams while playing an average of just two possessions faster than Harvard. Let’s spike it out even further. Harvard gives up .91 points per possession, 27th best in the country and best in the Ivy League. Cornell gives up 1.19 points per possession, second worst in the nation and dead last in the Ivy League.
You don’t need to know much about basketball to realize it’s hard to win when you give up the second most points-per-possession in the country. I do feel for Cornell. It can’t be easy to play defense without an established big man and with your two time defensive player of the year on the bench in street clothes. Still, that’s no excuse and something needs to change.
It’s always said in sports that the best defense is a good offense. I’d like to adapt the adage in this case and say a better defense comes from an efficient offense. Cornell’s average time of possession is 18.3 seconds, second shortest in the Ivy League. This is too fast. Cornell needs to take more time each possession. Of course I don’t want to see the Red stop pushing the ball in transition, but when in half court sets, the Red can stand to run a little more clock.
Dartmouth and Yale are the only two other Ivy League teams with a defensive efficiency ranking worse than 200th and both teams play at a slower pace offensively than the mean in the already-slow Ivy League. Dartmouth at 19.8 and Yale at 18.9 seconds per possession. If Cornell can’t defend–and the numbers indicate that it defends as bad as anyone–why not limit the number of opportunities the opponent has to score? Cornell hasn’t exactly lit up the scoreboard on offense, but that half of the game is light years ahead of its defense. There’s talent on the offensive side of the ball and I’d like to see the Red use its relative strength to protect its weakness.
At the end of the day, even if the Red can manage a win here or there, the 2013-2014 season will be one quickly forgotten. For the good of the program, the real question is which way is Cornell heading? Former New England Patriots owner Victor Kiam once said that “Even if you fall on your face, you’re still moving forward.” Cornell sure as hell has fallen, but is the Red moving forward? If this team can adapt, learn from the nonconference, and stay together as a group maybe it is, even if it’s only falling forward from where it was in December. Starting today, Cornell has 14 games to show us which way it’s going to fall.