The issue of identity in Ithaca

Early in last Saturday’s broadcast of the Penn-Cornell game, Big Red announcers Barry Leonard and Eric Taylor recounted a recent conversation with coach Bill Courtney in which the coach was unsure of the identity of his team. After 22 games and in the throes of a four-game losing streak, what does this mean for the program going forward?

Cornell entered the season picked eighth in the Ivy League preseason media poll, and had a KenPom raking of 311.  The Big Red are the third-youngest team in Division I with eight freshmen, four sophomores, five juniors and two seniors. With season-long injuries to one freshman, one sophomore and a senior, the team ended up being an even younger group.

With the graduation of the seven member senior class, including first-team All-Ivy Shonn Miller, Galal Cancer and Devin Cherry, Cornell lost 56 percent of its minutes, 58 percent of its blocks, 59 percent of its total rebounds, 63 percent of its total points and 71 percent of its made free throws. As a result, it was understood that the 2015-16 season would be a rebuilding year with low expectations.

Cornell went 7-7 in its nonconference schedule with three of those losses to teams from power conferences. In the other four losses, only one was more than nine points. In league play, the Big Red have been competitive against every school except Yale and Princeton (KenPom 51 and 58, respectively).  Without its then-leading scorer, Robert Hatter, and a routinely undersized frontcourt, the team was able to challenge Columbia twice, as well as complete a road sweep of Dartmouth and Harvard for the first time since 2009-10.

Looking at the season-long statistics, the Big Red have the Ivy League’s two top scorers in Matt Morgan and Robert Hatter.  Morgan is also sixth in free throw percentage, second in three-pointers made and third in steals.  Hatter is fifth in steals and assists.  Darryl Smith has the highest field goal percentage in the league, and is seventh in steals.  Center/forward David Onuorah is fifth in overall rebounds and third in blocks per game.  JoJo Fallas is ninth in three-point field goal percentage.

Despite the positives for Cornell, there are significant areas of concern.

Bill Courtney is in his sixth season in Ithaca. To date his overall record is 59-108, and he is 26-52 in the Ivy League. In his first five campaigns, his teams have had three fifth-place finishes, a sixth and an eighth.  Cornell is the only team in the Ivies not to enjoy a postseason appearance during this time.

In Courtney’s tenure, the best conference record for Cornell has been 7-7 in 2011-12.  The team is presently 2-6 with six conference games left.  Two of those contests are against Princeton and Yale, who beat the Big Red by an average of 30 points.  It is highly likely that the team will have its sixth straight season at .500 or below.

The coach has brought a unique style to the league.  His uptempo high pressure offense and defense has sought to outscore its opponents while forcing turnovers and steals.  Unfortunately, the season results have the offense at fifth in points scored, sixth in three-point field goal percentage, and seventh in free throw percentage, as well as last in defense, scoring margin, field goal percentage and assists.  On defense, the Big Red are tops in steals and fourth in blocks but seventh in field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage. They are also last in points allowed, rebounding and rebounding margin.

With a small senior class, Cornell only has two recruits for the 2016-17 season. Since the team is loaded with guards, the two recruits are front court players. Jerry Ben (6-foot-9) is reportedly an athletic power forward who can rebound and block shots.  The other, Josh Warren (6-foot-8) seems to have a more developed offensive game with the ability to face up, play with his back to the basket, pass out of the post and finish around the rim.

One of the main reasons for the team’s close losses this year is the offensive and defensive imbalance down low.  Ben and/or Warren will need to make an instant impact, and Stone Gettings will need to make a definite leap to help Onuorah establish a solid front court that challenges its opponents from taking control of the paint.

Last year, Bill Courtney was in the final year of his initial five-year contract.  During that season, he received a one-year extension.  One way or another, a decision will need to be made in the next month or two about the future of the program.

With a new university president (Elizabeth Garrett) who appears to be promoting financial and organizational efficiency, will it ultimately be worthwhile for the school to keep a coach who is a good person and recruited a high number of quality student-athletes, but has had limited success with a style that does not seem to overwhelm the other members of an ever-improving Ivy League?  Or does she and Athletic Director Andy Noel take a chance investing in a new coach and philosophy to find out if the Big Red can routinely make it to the top half of the Ivy League, if not the title?

Perhaps they can look to Penn for some answers. While the depths in Ithaca have arguably not been as low as the previous seasons in West Philadelphia, and the future at Penn is still uncertain, there is apparent improvement in the team as well as returning excitement among students and alumni.  No matter which choice the school makes, the coach needs to create an identity until one develops organically.

3 thoughts on “The issue of identity in Ithaca

  1. Identity, or lack of, is huge problem for an atheletic team. Just look at our league. Princeton, Yale, and now Penn I am happy to report, have identities. You know what they can do and what is coming before you play them. Successful teams–college or pro– have identity. That was one of the many problems during the Jerome years. Even he would admit he had no idea who they were. I like Courtney, but Cornell is being left behind in a league that is accelerating rapidly in both atheletic as well as coaching talent. Recruits are better and the coaching has improved dramatically since Tommy Amaker arrived–Kyle Smith, Courmier and now Donahue. A coach with Steve Donahue’s resume is going to make it that much harder to win the league in a few years. (At least I hope he will.) I think most would agree he is off to decent start with an undermanned squad. The question now for Cornell is which direction do they want to go.

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