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?
It’s that time of the year. The leaves are changing colors, the Jets’ season is hopelessly lost, and gym floors everywhere are echoing with the sound of squeaking feet and whistles that have been missing for way too long. It’s the season of previews, where the optimists shine and everyone still has a chance.
Everyone except for Cornell, at least if you ask assistant coaches around the league.
“They’re bad. Pretty simply put, they’re bad.”
“Cornell is in trouble.”
“[I] just don’t see them winning many more games than last year.”
These are among the flattering remarks anonymous Ivy League assistant coaches dispensed about the Big Red in City of Basketball Love‘s “Coaches’ Thoughts” Ivy season preview. The media wasn’t any more impressed as the Big Red were projected to finish last in the preseason media poll by an overwhelming margin.
I get it. Coming off of a 2-26 season with only one Division I win, it’s hard not to automatically slot Cornell at the bottom of the pack. The climb up from the bottom is never as swift as the fall from the top and the Red haven’t done anything to prove that they are more capable than a season ago.
It really wasn’t that long ago that Cornell Basketball could be uttered with sincerity in the same sentence as the likes of Duke, Kentucky, Syracuse, and Michigan State. Now, just four short years later, Cornell comparisons have fallen to the company of Grambling State, Southern Utah, and Lamar. Of course, that’s what happens when you go from the Sweet Sixteen to a 1-13 non conference record faster than you can say Wroblewski or Chemerinski.
I write it again because it’s stark. 1-13, what do you do with that? In theory, it’s simple. You change.
In 2012-13: 13-18, 5-9, T-6th place, No Postseason.
Believe it or not, there are teams not named Harvard playing basketball in the Ivy League this season. I know, shocking. One of these teams is the kids from Ithaca. I use kids almost literally. That’s what you’re going to see a lot of this season from Cornell: kids. Robert Hatter, Nolan Cressler, Devin Cherry, Dwight Tarwater, and David Onuorah are Cornell’s opening day starters, a lineup that includes two freshman and just one senior.
There are a lot of firsts here. This is the first time since the start of the 2008-09 season that Cornell did not start at least two seniors. That night, Jason Battle was the lone fourth-year player in the starting lineup, contributing four points in 17 minutes to a ten point victory over South Dakota. This is the first time since the start of the 2006-07 season that Cornell has had a freshman in its starting lineup. That night Ryan Wittman and Louis Dale combined for 25 points en route to top Northwestern.
Let’s clarify that: a disappointing season with an asterisk next to it. It’s hard to boil the 2013 campaign down to one word. At its peak, Cornell was a legitimate contender, a 5-3 team that was one Errick Peck three pointer away from starting 6-2 and turning the Ivy race upside down. Even with the failed comeback against Harvard, Cornell at one point established itself as an upper echelon team poised for its third straight year of improvement under Bill Courtney. At rock bottom, Cornell was arguably the weakest team in the Ancient Eight. Losing its final six contests, a 1-6 conference record at Newman Arena, and a shared sixth place finish isn’t going to turn any heads or garner any optimism for the future, but, remember, the asterisk. It would be unfair to completely judge Cornell on its poor finish. Yes, a golden opportunity was squandered, but the Big Red ended its season with one hand tied behind its back.
To be successful in this league you have to play consistent basketball: 40 minutes, 14 games at the same high level. Emerging from a long weekend 0-2 could be the difference in two-to-three spots in the final standings. High highs and low lows just don’t work in a league without a conference tournament.
Consistency will be of foremost importance for Cornell because the Red have been everything but over
its 17 non-conference games. This team’s failure to string together 40 consistent minutes and struggles against fellow mid-majors have led some to re-evaluate it from a dark horse title contender to a bottom half finisher.
While certainly a fair assessment based on the non-conference eye-test, it’s hard to count out the Red just yet. Cornell is certainly offensively challenged. What the Red have going for itself is its style of play. At times, Cornell looked too fast for its own good, but the positives of successfully playing fast in the Ivy League cannot be ignored. Bill Courtney’s up tempo, run for 40-minutes style of basketball is different from just about everyone else in the league. Cornell manufactures almost 3% more possessions per game than Penn, the second fastest tempo in the league, and over 7% more possessions per game than the Ivy League average. Defensively, Cornell has the size, speed, and athleticism to force teams who like to play 60-65 possessions per game to shoot up above 70. Opponents will try to slow Cornell down and force the Red to execute a half court offense, but I’m of the mindset that it’s easier to speed a team up than slow it down. Rushed basketball leads to bad shots and forced turnovers, especially on the second night of a back-to-back Ivy weekend.
I’m going to be blunt. Cornell is struggling. A 23-point home loss to Stony Brook will make people say that. The Seahawks’ 23-point victory marked the first 20 point defeat for Cornell at Newman Arena since falling to Georgia Tech by 21 points on November 23, 2003. Stony Brook may not be the eventual national runner-ups like Georgia Tech was in 2003-2004, but they were good enough to expose many of the Big Red”s deficiencies. This game was more than Cornell going cold from the field at the same time that Stony Brook was heating up. It was a game where statistical tendencies took over. It didn’t start like that though. From the tip, it looked like Cornell may have turned a corner. Two consecutive wins in Vegas, ten strong opening minutes against a good Stony Brook team. It was 19-19 and Cornell’s ball movement looked much improved. The Red was taking high percentage shots,
shooting 54.5% from the field. Then at the 9:48 mark in the first half, everything changed. The disparity between an efficient defense and a flawed offense became apparent. Losing by 23 at home to a team Cornell historically
has had success against should raise eyebrows, but it’s something I wouldn’t be all too concerned with.
Two steps removed from the historic Sweet 16 team and the first season that Bill Courtney had his own recruits to work with, the 2011-2012 campaign served as a building block for Courtney and his program. A 5-9 non-conference record coupled with 7-7 in Ivy play defines
the word mediocrity, but did so in a way that provides promise for the future. An overtime win over future NCAA Tournament darlings, Lehigh, looks a lot better now than it did in early December. Near misses on the road against BCS foes, Illinois, Penn State, and Maryland showed the potential this team had. Road woes and inconsistent play kept the Red out of the league’s top half, but a win over Princeton and a thrilling overtime defeat of Yale showed what this team is at its best. Returning a decorated freshman class, including the league’s rookie of the year will allow Cornell to keep building. What won’t be easy to replicate is the production and leadership of Cornell’s starting backcourt. Drew Ferry led the league in three point shooting and Chris Wroblewski departs East Hill as the school’s all-time assist leader.
Johnny Gray has done a lot of great things this season, but prolific defense has not been what he’s known for. But Gray changed that on Friday. In the first 36 minutes of action, Gray managed to hold the Ivy League Player of the Year favorite to just 10 points on 5-14 shooting. Unfortunately, it was the final four minutes, not the first 36 that made the difference.
Four minutes. How much can really change in four minutes? Just ask Zack Rosen. Rosen, in the final four minutes against Cornell, was unbelievable, playing probably the best stretch of basketball I’ve seen by a point guard at any level. Yes, even including the great Jeremy Lin.
Rosen was the best player on the court. The crowd knew it. Cornell knew it. Most importantly, Rosen knew it, and he played like it. Four minutes, 3-3 shooting, 13 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 2 steals. Big shot after big shot. Big play after big play. Rosen single handily turned a four-point deficit into a seven-point victory.
Coming into the weekend, Cornell and Princeton were arguably the hottest Ivy League teams. Both teams entered Friday night looking to capture its longest winning streak of the season after collectively dismissing arguably the two best teams in the conference, Harvard and Yale. Friday night, Princeton surged in the second half to top Columbia while Cornell faltered late and fell at the Palestra. Princeton, who has probably been the most inconsistent team in the league this season will have to put together a complete effort if it doesn’t want to find itself being swept by Cornell for the second time in the last three seasons.