Stuck in the middle with Cornell

Yes I’m stuck in the middle with you,
And I’m wondering what it is I should do,
It’s so hard to keep this smile from my face,
Losing control, yeah, I’m all over the place,
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you

-Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan, “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel (1972)

Heading into this weekend, Cornell looked to build upon its road sweep of Harvard and Dartmouth to solidify its hold onto fourth place in the Ivy League.  After being thoroughly dismantled by first-place Yale, Cornell ended its four-game road trip at 2-2 and finds itself in a tie for fifth place at 2-4 (9-11 overall).  After week four of the conference schedule, the league appears to be divided into several groups.  While Yale, Princeton and Columbia are at the top, Harvard and Dartmouth find themselves clustered at the bottom. The Big Red are presently stuck in the middle with Penn and Brown.

Cornell looked to take advantage of a Brown team that was last in the league in defense, giving up 83.2 points a game.  Despite its 89 points against Penn, the Bears still sat sixth in the Ivies with a 70.5-point scoring average and seventh in field goal percentage (40.2 percent).  Defensively, Brown was seventh in field-goal percentage for its opponents (48.2 percent).  If there were some areas of concern, they were the Bears’ three-point and free throw shooting.  Bruno was second in three-point field goal percentage (41 percent) and second in free throws made (18.5 per game).

With Cornell bringing a deeper team with more active defenders, not to mention its season-long leading scorer in Robert Hatter, it appeared to be a good opportunity for the Big Red to put distance between itself and the bottom four teams in the league.  Unfortunately, Brown had another impressive offensive game, displayed a solid 1-3-1 zone to force too many outside shots, and showed resilience to Cornell’s late half surges.

The Bears scored 86 points, hitting 46 percent with two-pointers and 47 percent from beyond the arc. They also made 21 of 24 free throws, including 10-for-10 by Steven Spieth.  While Cornell was able to put up 80 points, it took 76 shots to get there.  Overall, the team shot 40 percent from the floor, 29 percent from three and 55 percent from the charity stripe. Its two leading scorers, Hatter and Matt Morgan, were both able to score 19 points, but shot a combined 14-for-38 (37 percent), including  4-for-17 (24 percent) from beyond the arc.

Over the last few games, Cornell had been able to take advantage of its opponents’ thin bench in charging back late in each stanza.  In the last six minutes against Harvard and Dartmouth, the Big Red pressured those teams into 16 and nine-point swings, respectively, to take the lead into halftime.  In the last 10 minutes of both games, Cornell was able to use 16-point advantages to reclaim the leads and pull away for good.  In the last six minutes of the first half on Friday, the Big Red were able to double their output from 17 to 34, but they could only cut its deficit from nine to three points.  With 10 minutes left in the game, Brown found itself holding onto a one-point lead.  The Bears outscored Cornell 19-14 the rest of the way, going 11-for-14 from the field (3-for-3 from three) and 12-for-14 from the free throw line.

On Saturday, with Cornell facing a much stronger Yale team, it could not do anything on either side of the ball. The Bulldogs went up by 20 points with nine minutes remaining, and 27 with six and a half minutes left in the first half.  Yale coasted through the second half, eventually pulling away with a 31- point victory, 83-52.  Matt Morgan, the Ivy League’s leading scorer, was the one bright spot for the Big Red, going for 20 points, including 5-for-10 from three.  Robert Hatter, in his second game back since Jan. 6, showed signs of rust, scoring two points on 1-for-9 shooting over 21 minutes.

After this lost weekend in southern New England, the Big Red find themselves back home in Ithaca to face Princeton on Friday and Penn on Saturday.  Within the league’s top tier, Cornell was competitive in its two losses to its Empire State travel partner, but Yale proved to be too strong.  Over the last several weeks, Princeton has shown itself to be closer to Yale than Columbia in the way it has handily dispatched teams in the lower tiers.  As a result, it does not seem that Friday will be a successful game for the Big Red.

The team’s focus this weekend, as well as the remainder of the season, should be to take control of the Ivy League’s middle group, starting with a win over fourth-place Penn (8-11, 2-3 Ivy).

Like its games against teams outside the top group, the Big Red should be able to use their speed to score into the mid or upper 70s.  However, the key is for the team to be more efficient with its field goals.  With Hatter getting healthier and spending more time on the court, he should be able to improve his shot selection and accuracy, as well as his balance with Morgan. Hatter, Morgan and Darryl Smith have to avoid being forced to spend a large period of time around the perimeter. They help themselves, as well as the rest of the offense, when they drive the lane and break down the opposing defense.  Additionally, Penn has gotten off to very slow starts over the last several games.  The Big Red need to get on the board early and often to take advantage of this.

As important as those items are, Cornell needs to concentrate on its free throws.  A team like Yale may be good enough to handle a low percentage, but the Big Red do not have that luxury.  Against Penn, the highest fouling team in the Ivies, Cornell has to hit closer to the 76 percent from the sweep of Harvard and Dartmouth, than the 55 percent from this past weekend.

Before the conference season, Penn spent most of its offense passing along the perimeter and forcing up shots.  With the recent departure of Antonio Woods, the Quakers have become a more attacking group.  The team has finally appeared to embrace coach Steve Donahue’s offensive philosophy that analytically emphasizes layups, dunks, stand-still threes, or post ups in the lane. As a result, the team’s field goal percentage in conference play has increased to 45 percent from its overall number of 43 percent, and its three-point shooting has improved to 37 percent from its season-long 30 percent.  Also, four players are in double digits and a fifth is knocking at the door with 8.0.

For Cornell to succeed on defense, it needs to force Penn to stay on the outside with constant zone pressure.  Doing that will make the Quakers eat time off the shot clock, take unwanted shots and prevent them from activating Donahue’s preferred scoring options.  While the Big Red should not be afraid of sending Penn to the free throw line (60 percent Ivy, 62 percent overall) late in the game, it will help if they can use their uptempo game to tire the Quakers and make those uncontested shots just a bit more challenging.

While fourth place may not seem glamorous in a one-bid conference, a year from now it would take a team into the (presumed) inaugural Ivy League Tournament and a shot at a postseason berth.  As such, there is no time like the present for Cornell to unstick itself from the middle by beating Penn, and let others know that they are for real, now and in the future.

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