Searching for Solutions in Ithaca

Cornell’s failure to play anything resembling defense has resulted in a swift fall to the bottom rungs of college basketball. Can the Big Red even stay competitive in an up year for the Ivy?

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.

Bill Courtney’s run-and-gun brand of basketball is far from what Cornell loyalists saw from Steve Donahue’s teams for a decade. No one is saying fast can’t work in the Ivy League. In fact, it can, and it has. Just look at Harvard. Cornell is built to play fast; athletic guards in Hatter, Cressler, and Cherry and bigs who can run the floor in Tarwater and Onuorah. It works in theory, but clearly not in execution, at least for Cornell. The difference is defense. Harvard can defend. The Crimson give up a league low 60.6 points per game. Cornell is struggling on the defensive end, giving up a league leading 81.1 points to opposing teams while playing an average of just two possessions faster than Harvard. Let’s spike it out even further. Harvard gives up .91 points per possession, 27th best in the country and best in the Ivy League. Cornell gives up 1.19 points per possession, second worst in the nation and dead last in the Ivy League.

You don’t need to know much about basketball to realize it’s hard to win when you give up the second most points-per-possession in the country. I do feel for Cornell. It can’t be easy to play defense without an established big man and with your two time defensive player of the year on the bench in street clothes. Still, that’s no excuse and something needs to change.

It’s always said in sports that the best defense is a good offense. I’d like to adapt the adage in this case and say a better defense comes from an efficient offense. Cornell’s average time of possession is 18.3 seconds, second shortest in the Ivy League. This is too fast. Cornell needs to take more time each possession. Of course I don’t want to see the Red stop pushing the ball in transition, but when in half court sets, the Red can stand to run a little more clock.

Dartmouth and Yale are the only two other Ivy League teams with a defensive efficiency ranking worse than 200th and both teams play at a slower pace offensively than the mean in the already-slow Ivy League. Dartmouth at 19.8 and Yale at 18.9 seconds per possession. If Cornell can’t defend–and the numbers indicate that it defends as bad as anyone–why not limit the number of opportunities the opponent has to score? Cornell hasn’t exactly lit up the scoreboard on offense, but that half of the game is light years ahead of its defense. There’s talent on the offensive side of the ball and I’d like to see the Red use its relative strength to protect its weakness.

At the end of the day, even if the Red can manage a win here or there, the 2013-2014 season will be one quickly forgotten. For the good of the program, the real question is which way is Cornell heading? Former New England Patriots owner Victor Kiam once said that “Even if you fall on your face, you’re still moving forward.” Cornell sure as hell has fallen, but is the Red moving forward? If this team can adapt, learn from the nonconference, and stay together as a group maybe it is, even if it’s only falling forward from where it was in December. Starting today, Cornell has 14 games to show us which way it’s going to fall.

6 thoughts on “Searching for Solutions in Ithaca”

  1. Interesting reading. Sure, the solution is easy to state and much harder to apply, but the way forward to respectability is demonstrated clearly in this piece. Barring a complete turnaround in the Ivy season, Courtney is toast. The Big Red will be looking for a candidate who has succeeded on the Ivy League level, who has experience in the Big Time and who has at least 5-10 productive years left. My computer just spit out “Bill Carmody.” Glad it wasn’t “Brian Earl”…He’ll have some opportunities before too long.

  2. I feel your pain. Having your once proud hoops program in chaos after recent success is frustrating. However, I believe Cornell has a much more complex situation. I think the culture and infrastructure for long term success has never been there (as compared to the Ps and now Harvard) and the 2010 year (especially the way they got Jeff Foote) was more fluke than hard core recruiting. The roundball stars aligned as they did for Brown one year. I may be wrong but Cornell has always struck me as more interested in building their hockey program rather than hoops. Regardless, Steve Donahue proved that you could built a winner in the Ivy that resides north of South Jersey, I am less confident (although I like him personally) that Bill Courtney can replicate this.

    The AQ

    BTW Billionaire NFL owners who like bathroom products so much that they “buy the company” can say anything they want, but you definitely don’t have to be moving forward to fall on your face. You can be moving backwards as well.

    • Ancient Quaker, I respect your comments and yes the way Foote came to the program was a bit of a fluke but give credit to Steve Donahue’s recruiting and usage of transfers. After some struggles in the early years his recruiting improved and he had brought in some excellent athletes pre-Foote in Eric Taylor, Cody Toppert, and the big man from Iowa whose name escapes me. The improved recruiting showed up in the records as Donahue’s were on an upward tick over his final 5-6 years. People also forget that Foote had an excellent back-up in Mark Coury the transfer from Kentucky. It is unfortunate that Army hired Zach Spiker away from Cornell just prior to the 2010 season. He would have been the logical successor to Donahue and would have contined his philosophy.

  3. Ageed. What I was alluding to was the overall lack of recruting infrastructure, both before and after SD,
    over the long term for Cornell. I think they’ ve now regressed to the pre Donahue era. But like so many of my thoughts and opinions—I could be right.

    The AQ

  4. It’s hard to argue with the concept of bleeding the shot clock on each possession to reduce the total number of possessions so you can keep the game close enough that a couple of late threes from Cressler can steal a win. But I will anyway, because that fix is merely cosmetic and doesn’t address the underlying issues of this team. So, let me just say that I agree your way would likely result in an extra win or two than the current path, but what the heck difference does it make if you go 1-13 in the league versus 2-14?

    First, any discussion of strategy is just rearranging the deck chair on the Titantic. This is a team with fundamental problems. While athletic as all get out, they are poorly coached on the fundamentals. Cressler, Cherry and Hatter are all shooting guards who aren’t good at running an offense and there isn’t a viable post threat on the team. They take threes like they are a better shooting version of the 2010.

    Second, Cornell really doesn’t play that fast. Sure 18.3 seconds per possession is quick by Ivy standards (though much more deliberate than Penn and Brown), but it’s only #238 in the nation. And it’s the slowest of the Courtney era. The Big Red is not running and gunning. And like you said, Cornell is built to play fast; I’d argue that Cherry and Hatter are really only useful in the open court. In transition, Cornell’s four guard attack can look quite pretty. Once in the half court, Cornell’s offense is an impotent series of passes from behind the three point arc until: 1) someone takes a three; or 2) someone tries a one versus the world drive to the basket. They could run that for minutes and not get better looks at the basket because it is so poorly designed as an offense.

    Cornell’s tempo is based on opponents using just 17 second a possession. The results of those possessions are well known. And it’s not like Cornell is pressing. I’m not sure I can quantify it, but Cornell seems to have eschewed the press in all but the most obvious times. One obvious stat is that Cornell has gone from forcing turnovers 20% of the time (slightly better than the national average) to a brutal 14%. This team needs those turnovers because they can’t defend in the half court.

    Cornell should play the style they were recruited to play. Run. Get the guards into transition, open-court situations where they shine. Press and trap and get a few steal with easy transition lay-ups. Sure you’ll give up some easy baskets the other way, but the defense was going to give those up anyway. Sure, this would get you killed by 60 against Louisville, but we don’t play Louisville again. Cornell spent the non-conference schedule slowing things down with disastrous results. I don’t know if this would work, but trying to teams in the half-court slow down style that that they were recruited to play isn’t working.

    • Great comment. I agree that the Red would be much better off capitalizing on their athleticism by pressing more. As you said, if you’re going to give up 1.25 ppp anyway, why not try to force some turnovers, create some havoc, and get yourself some easy buckets on offense? Given the effectiveness of their pressure toward the end of last night’s game, it’ll be interesting to see if they come back with more of that next week in the rematch at Newman.


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