The last several weekends have been difficult for the Cornell basketball program. Although losses to Princeton and Yale were expected, it was hoped that there would be more competition against the top tier, along with one or two victories against Brown and Penn. Unfortunately, the Tigers and Bulldogs together averaged 30-point wins, while the Bears and Quakers were able to withstand Cornell’s pressure and emerged victorious. In the midst of a four-game losing streak, it was thought that the Ithaca arrival of Dartmouth and Harvard, two teams that were defeated on the road by the Big Red a few weeks ago, would provide the opportunity for Cornell to get back in the win column.
The two games did not provide any relief and left the team in the Ivy League basement at 2-8 (9-15 overall). On Friday, the Big Red fell to Dartmouth, 78-66, while losing to Harvard 76-74 on Saturday night. The two games had different story lines, but ended up exposing similar flaws.
The Big Green used their dominance on the boards, as well as 5-for-8 shooting from three, to open a 12-point lead at halftime. Dartmouth then hit nine of its first 13 shots close to the basket to stretch the lead to 20 with 12:20 to go in the game.
In the next three minutes, Cornell’s Darryl Smith, who leads the Ivy League in field goal percentage, scored 12 points to cut the lead in half. For a moment, it seemed possible that there would be a repeat performance of the team’s comeback victory in Hanover. In that game, Dartmouth held a 12 point lead with just over 10 minutes to go, but Cornell took command and won by 4.
By the time Smith hit his next three-pointer at the 4:42 mark, the Big Red were only down six. However, another Big Green collapse was not to be. Dartmouth hit four of its last six shots and went 9-for-9 from the charity stripe, while Cornell went 1-for-7 from three, to stretch the lead back up to 12 by game’s end.
On Saturday, Cornell started out on fire, going 8-for-14 from three and 7-for-10 from inside the arc to put up 46 points and take a 15-point halftime lead into the break. The Big Red extended the lead to 21 with 9:02 remaining and seemed to be in control for a weekend split. Harvard, though, had other thoughts.
The Crimson stormed back and took the lead, 72-71, with two minutes to go. A Zena Edosomwan dunk with 30 seconds left upped Harvard’s lead to three. Matt Morgan, who had 22 in the first half and only two in the second, came over to the right side of the arc and buried a long three to tie the game. Harvard worked the clock down and Tommy McCarthy hit an uncontested layup with six seconds left. After a timeout, Morgan got the ball on the right side, but a possible miscommunication between he and JoJo Fallas caused the ball to simply roll out of bounds before a shot could be attempted.
In the end, Harvard closed the game on a 30-7 run, going 9-for-10 inside the arc, 3-for-5 from three and 3-for-4 from the free throw line. Cornell, meanwhile, went 1-for-9 with one three-pointer and four turnovers during that stretch.
Looking at the end of both games, Dartmouth and Harvard got high percentage shots, hit its free throws and limited its turnovers. For Cornell, there was poor shooting, often from low-percentage spots, few steals leading to easy layups, and less appearances at the charity stripe.
For Cornell to succeed, the players need to get out and run, avoiding halfcourt sets. Not only does this benefit its athletic slashing guards with higher percentage shots and chances at free throws, but tires out its opposition. While it is important throughout each game, it is vitally important late, when its superior athleticism and deep bench can take advantage of more vulnerable teams. While it was understandable that this philosophy could not be put into play against the top two Ivy teams, the Big Red have not been able to do it against the four teams in the lower division of the league over the last three weeks.
- Robert Hatter’s ankle may not be completely healed. In the six games he has played since his injury, he has averaged 24.2 minutes, 11.2 points, 30% from the field and 22.2% from three. Before the injury, he averaged 29.8 minutes, 19.9 points, 44.8% from the field and 26% from three.
- There has been a difficulty figuring out how to incorporate the high risk/high reward Hatter with the more efficient Matt Morgan, Darryl Smith and JoJo Fallas.
- The small and shallow front court is at a significant disadvantage keeping opponents from second chances and high percentage shots, especially when foul trouble occurs.
- Committing too many fouls has accounted for 45 additional free throws and 50 more made free throws for the Red’s opponents.
- League opponents, who have very good coaches, smart players and awareness of Cornell’s style, have learned how to handle its strengths and exploit its weaknesses.
- The Big Red are the third youngest team in the country, and the freshman are learning how to handle a long season and grueling back-to-back Ivy weekends.
- Coach Bill Courtney has been able to recruit a number of talented players over the years. Unfortunately, his style of play, focusing on guards and small forwards in transition, has not proven successful for team victories. While there are things like injuries that are beyond the control of the coaching staff, keeping to a style that is not working, sticking with a player that is not healthy or not ideally performing are issues that the staff should be addressing.
With a season that has quickly slipped away and weekly defeats that are near the top of Bill Simmons’ levels of losing, coach Bill Courtney needs to quickly find new ways to make the team competitive against Yale and Princeton, while beating Penn and Brown, to have any shot at keeping his job. Given the results of the last several weeks, an insistence on an unsuccessful style of play, and six years of lower division records combined with a league that will be even stronger next year, it seems unlikely that there will be enough positive results in the next two weeks for the coach to remain in his position. If that occurs, perhaps a new coach can take the talented players that coach Courtney has recruited, add some height and discipline, as well as some input from the Cornell analytic community to put the Big Red into a system that can move the program forward.