It’s that time of the year. The leaves are changing colors, the Jets’ season is hopelessly lost, and gym floors everywhere are echoing with the sound of squeaking feet and whistles that have been missing for way too long. It’s the season of previews, where the optimists shine and everyone still has a chance.
Everyone except for Cornell, at least if you ask assistant coaches around the league.
“They’re bad. Pretty simply put, they’re bad.”
“Cornell is in trouble.”
“[I] just don’t see them winning many more games than last year.”
These are among the flattering remarks anonymous Ivy League assistant coaches dispensed about the Big Red in City of Basketball Love‘s “Coaches’ Thoughts” Ivy season preview. The media wasn’t any more impressed as the Big Red were projected to finish last in the preseason media poll by an overwhelming margin.
I get it. Coming off of a 2-26 season with only one Division I win, it’s hard not to automatically slot Cornell at the bottom of the pack. The climb up from the bottom is never as swift as the fall from the top and the Red haven’t done anything to prove that they are more capable than a season ago.
Still, as painful as last season was and as bleak as most season previews read, it’s not all bad for Cornell. Coming off of a season with the lowest win total in the program’s 68-year history, the only thing I can confidently say about this team is that we’ll see improvement. Improvement! It almost has to happen for Bill Courtney and his squad, but the question is, how much? No one is going to confuse the Red with a title contender, but one thing Courtney now has is experience throughout his roster. Courtney’s Big Three – Shonn Miller, Galal Cancer and Devin Cherry – are battle-tested and will have to be relied on heavily if opponents are going to worry more about the basketball team than the weather when they travel to Ithaca.
Miller’s return could arguably have the biggest impact of any addition in the entire league. In Miller’s sophomore season, his last on the floor, he led the Red in scoring, steals, blocks and minutes played. Despite missing the final four games due to a shoulder injury that would keep him sidelined the entirety of his junior season, Miller was a unanimous first-team All-Ivy player. There isn’t another player in the league who can change the game at both ends of the floor the way Miller can. I fully expect Miller to return to his All-Ivy form quickly, and his presence will do wonders for Cornell’s frontcourt. David Onuorah and Deion Giddens were asked to do too much last season. With Miller on the floor, Courtney can mix and match the rest of his bigs and play the hot hand. I expect Onuorah and Giddens to be the guys early on, but a healthy Braxston Bunce, an improving Dave LaMore and uber-talented freshman Jordan Abdur-Ra’oof could play a role in shaping this Cornell team.
The backcourt is what will make or break the Red. Devin Cherry has been through it all and can do it all in this league. He ranked in the top 20 in scoring, rebounds and assists and became Cornell’s go-to offensive weapon by the end of last season. Pair him with veteran hand Galal Cancer, who averaged more than 20 minutes per game his freshman and sophomore seasons before taking a one-year hiatus with the team, and Cornell will have guys handling the ball who have been there. But a crucial piece ventured 836 miles south. Nolan Cressler’s departure leaves a gaping hole in Cornell’s offensive attack. Cherry and Cancer are fearless and can get in the lane as well as any Ivy guard, but when they’re on the floor together, Cornell’s attack becomes one-dimensional. Cherry and Cancer both have career three-point shooting percentages south of 30 percent, and without Cressler (a career 38 percent three-point shooter) on the wing, Cornell’s guards will struggle to find the driving lanes they’re accustomed to.
What Courtney will have to rely on is the emergence of one of his young guards. Robert Hatter can flat out sling the basketball, but inconsistency plagued him as a freshman. Darryl Smith really came on at the end of his freshman campaign, averaging 25 minutes per game in his last 10 contests. Smith, not known for his ability to shoot the long ball, has nevertheless shown poise beyond his years. Freshman Pat Smith could be Cornell’s best option to replace Cressler’s production. Smith shot more than 50 percent from the field, including 42 percent from deep in his senior season at Archbishop Wood Catholic High School. Smith will undoubtedly have an adjustment period as a freshman, but if he can shoot anywhere near the rate he did in high school, Courtney will have no choice but to find him minutes.
“They’re pretty bad. Pretty simply put, they’re bad.” The quote is worth repeating. But how well do these preseason evaluations hold up? Last season, Penn was picked to finish second in the preseason media poll and instead finished seventh. Columbia was slated to finish last and instead finished third. No, I don’t expect Cornell to contend for a title this season – there’s a limit to my optimism. But my point is that talk is just talk and everything, including my own words, is meaningless once the ball is thrown up for the first time. It’s put up or shut up time for Bill Courtney and his crew. Let’s see what happens.