After completing finals, Cornell headed west to take part in the Las Vegas Invitational. After a week traveling from Wyoming to Los Angeles to Sin City, the Red left with a 1-3 record and a small amount of optimism heading into the last stretch of nonconference games.
With the continued absence of starting center David Onuorah and no reported return date, coach Brian Earl decided to replace forward Donovan Wright with guard Troy Whiteside. With the four-guard set, the team decided to focus on winning games by improving its offensive output.
The first game was against Wyoming, ranked 10th in the Mountain West preseason poll and No. 156 by KenPom. The Cowboys scored 56 points first-half points and took a 28-point lead into the locker room. Wyoming opened the lead to a high of 32 at the 14:24 mark, but Cornell eventually brought it down to a 19-point loss, 97-78.
Next up was USC, No. 23 in the national polls and No. 29 in KenPom. Following the blowout road loss to Houston a few weeks earlier and the Wyoming defeat the chances were high that the Trojans would run away with this one. However, the undefeated Trojans were a bit vulnerable, as it had to secure a last-minute come-from-behind victory against Troy in its opening tournament game.
Cornell went up 16-6 in the first five minutes and 28-19 with 8:16 to go. USC finally took the lead with 45 seconds left and finished the half up, 37-34. The Trojans eventually opened up a 14-point-lead in the second half. Cornell was able to cut the deficit to six with 2:55 remaining. Unfortunately, the Red went 2-6 with three turnovers and a missed free throw the rest of the way, while USC hit a three-pointer and seven of eight free throws to win, 79-67.
Arriving at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday afternoon, Cornell played Troy. The Trojans, rated 9th in the Sun Belt preseason poll and ranked No. 229 in KenPom, almost upset USC, 82-77, and stayed close with Wyoming, losing 72-66.
Troy jumped out to a 17-3 lead in the first 5:30. Twice, Cornell cut the lead to five, before going down 10 at the break. In the second half, the Red went on a 17-5 run over a 3:30 minute period to take a 58-57 with 13:30 left. With 10 minutes to go, the game was tied at 62. Over the next six-plus minutes, Troy outscored Cornell 14-4 to open a 10-point lead. In the game’s last three minutes, Cornell was able to get the lead as close as five points, but Troy hit 14 of 16 free throws to close out the 92-84 victory.
On Friday, Cornell looked to get one win when they went up against Southeast Missouri State, who were 4-9 on the season and ranked No. 295 in KenPom. The Redhawks were without its second leading scorer and leading rebounder. Also, a few minutes into the contest, its leading scorer injured his lower back and had noticeable discomfort the rest of the way. Cornell took a six-point lead, 39-33, into the break. The Red opened up the second half on a 12-1 run to take a 17-point lead. While the Redhawks got the lead down to eight with 5:53 to go, that was as close as it would get. Cornell eventually won the contest by 16, 78-62.
Over the four games, Cornell’s starting five, Matt Morgan (21.0), Stone Gettings (20.8), Robert Hatter (12.0), Troy Whiteside (9.0), and JoJo Fallas (3.0) accounted for 65.8 points and 85.7 percent of the team’s production. In November, the starting five, which included Wright instead of Whiteside, contributed 77.6 percent of the scoring.
During the tournament, Cornell increased its offensive output, tempo, ball movement and three-point shooting, with noticeable increases in points scored (68.4 to 76.8), adjusted tempo (70.8 to 74.4), assists (12.3 to 15.8), field goal percentage (41.6 to 45.3 percent), three-point percentage (30.6 to 39.3 percent). three points attempted (24.7 to 29.3), and three points made (7.6 to 11.5). Defensively, the team has spent more energy limiting its opponent’s field goal (45.5 to 43.5 percent) and three-point percentages (38.9 to 35.5 percent), while focusing less on causing turnovers (11.0 to 9.3), forcing steals (4.9 to 3.8), rebounding (35.7 to 34.5 for the Red, 37.9 to 38.5 for its opponents; -2.2 to -4.0 differential), or getting to the free throw line (19.1 to 14.0).
With a point differential that went from -8.0 in November to -5.4 in the four December games, as well as the other offensive improvements, Cornell’s decision to go with a smaller and faster lineup that focused more energy on the three-pointer seems to have improved its chances against lower-ranked teams and narrowed the gap against stronger ones. As the team enters its last three Division I nonconference games against Syracuse (KenPom No. 45), UMass-Lowell (No. 284), and Albany (No. 167), time will tell if the Red’s continued use of this new up tempo plan moves them closer to the more successful 2015-16 Princeton Tigers, or last year’s disappointing Big Red.