Shot selection keeps holding the Big Red back

This is Shonn Miller doing the opposite of hoisting a three. (ithacajournal.com)
This is Shonn Miller doing the opposite of hoisting a three. (ithacajournal.com)

We are a little more than halfway through the Ivy slate and Cornell is just as up as it is down.  12-12 on the season and 4-4 in conference.   Satisfied?  Disappointed?  I don’t think you’ll find a Big Red fan in too much anguish. To suffer over a team bouncing back from its lowest win total in school history and fewest wins in league play since the 1970-71 campaign would be unreasonable, but who said sports fans have to be reasonable?  We’re a fickle group, easily frustrated and often disillusioned.

This is why when a team picked to finish dead last finds itself in the top half of the standings past the midway point of play, we can’t help but ask ourselves, why not more?

Cornell can be dangerous because of its ability to play a style of defense that isn’t often seen in the Ivy League.  But what is becoming increasingly clear is that defense alone isn’t enough win games.  In its Ivy opener, Cornell held Maodo Lo, the league’s leading scorer, scoreless on just two field-goal attempts.  In the first half of last Saturday’s game at Harvard, Cornell’s suffocating defense blanked Wesley Saunders, arguably the league’s most lethal scoring threat.  These two games have something in common besides Cornell’s defense stifling stars.  In both contests, Cornell held Columbia and Harvard below their season per game scoring average, and lost.  In fact, the Big Red have held opponents at or below its average scoring mark in 17 of 24 games this season, only winning 11 of these contests.  The only game the Red has won in which their opponent eclipsed its season scoring average was an overtime win at Dartmouth.

It is clear defense has taken the Red as far as they can go.  To consistently win, you need to make shots, something Cornell has not done.  In those losses to Columbia and Harvard, Shonn Miller shot a combined 4-for-23.  Even with a stout defense, Cornell isn’t good enough to overcome shooting performances like this from its best player.  These shooting woes can’t be brushed aside as a one-off occurrence nor can they be pinned on one guy.  Cornell’s shooting this season can go toe-to-toe with the worst in school history.

To date, the Red have shot 40 percent from the field.  No Cornell team has shot this poorly since the 2001-02 campaign, a team that shot a meager 38 percent for the season.  My impression is that Cornell’s shooting deficiencies are more a product of shot selection than anything else.  The stats back this up.  The three-point shooting run Cornell is on is historic, and unfortunately, it’s not historic in a good way.

This is the 29th season that the three-point shot has been part of college basketball.  Only four teams in Cornell history have shot a worse percentage from deep than what we’ve seen from Cornell the past two seasons.  Of course a team can’t excel in every aspect of the game, but what is alarming is this team has shown such a resolve to continue slinging it from deep, turning a blind eye to the results.

This season, more than 36 percent of Cornell’s field goal attempts have been three-pointers.  To put this in perspective, of the top 10 3-point shooting teams in school history (by three-point field goal percentage), only three have shot a higher percentage of three-pointers.

Rank Season 3-Point FG Percentage Percent of FGs attempted that were 3-Pointers
2014-2015 32.4% 36.7%
       
1 1989-1990 43.8% 23.3%
2 2009-2010 42.9% 40.0%
3 2008-2009 41.1% 33.8%
4 2007-2008 40.9% 35.7%
5 2006-2007 39.6% 36.5%
6 1988-1989 37.9% 24.1%
2004-2005 37.9% 35.5%
8 1990-1991 37.4% 29.6%
9 2010-2011 37.3% 42.5%
10 2005-2006 36.4% 37.2%

 

What the 2009-10, 2010-11, and 2005-06 teams all have in common is at least one player who ranks in the top 10 all time in career three-point field goal percentage in the school’s record book.  This year’s squad doesn’t come close.  Cornell has three players who have attempted at least 75 3-pointers and are on pace to jack up 100 or more (Devin Cherry is on pace to attempt 98 … close enough).  This group’s three-point shooting percentage ranges from 26 to 33 percent.  I don’t know what the Mendoza Line is for three-point field goal percentage, but I can tell you that’s not high enough to go out there and play the “live by the three, die by the three” game.  These numbers scream that Cornell’s offensive system is broken.  This team has arguably the best all-around player in the league, a shoo-in first team All-Ivy selection, and an offense that isn’t designed to get him the ball where he can be most effective.

I will give this team and this coaching staff some credit.  With six games left to play, the Red hold a one-game lead over Columbia for the final spot in the top half of the Ivy League standings.  Cornell has only occupied real estate in the top half of the final Ivy standings six times in last 20 years, something it has never done under Bill Courtney.  With the Ivy League title free from the shackles of its former Penn-Princeton geographical confinement, it’s not enough to hang your hat on a top-half league finish.  But, this season, for this team, it’s something.  Cornell wasn’t going to challenge Yale and Harvard at the very top of the standings— it’s simply not as good.  A top-half finish would be this team approaching, not shattering through, but approaching its ceiling.  Flaws or not, it has been a long time since we’ve seen the Big Red do this.

I just wish we saw more.

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