We’re counting down the top 10 moments in each Ivy school’s history as part of our Ivy League at 60 retrospective. Cornell is next because it’s good to be healthy!
Nov. 10, 2007 – Cornell opened the 2007-08 season with a win against Lehigh. During halftime, members of the 1988 Ivy League championship team walked onto the court to be honored for the 20th anniversary of their title. It was a fitting time for the celebration. In the 20 years since the 1988 team hung a banner in Barton Hall, Cornell hadn’t been back to the promised land.
The 2007-08 campaign was set up to tell a different story and Cornell poised to play an unfamiliar role in it – the favorite. For the first time since the 1987-88 season, a school other than Penn or Princeton was projected to win the league. The preseason hype was real. Steve Donahue’s teams had made significant strides over the past few seasons, Adam Gore and Jason Hartford were returning from injury, Ryan Wittman and Louis Dale were coming off arguably the two best freshman seasons in school history, and by the seventh game of the year, a new 7-footer would be eligible to step on the court.
Hype is one thing, but execution is another, and Cornell didn’t disappoint. The nonconference season was successful. The Red went 8-5, matching the most nonconference wins of any Cornell team in 11 years. Successful or not, the nonconference slate was just an appetizer. Any good appetizer is supposed to get you ready for the main course, which in this case was the Ivy League season. Heading into the Ivy opener against Columbia, Lions coach Joe Jones told reporters, “You have to say Cornell is the team [in the league] playing at the highest level right now.” In 2008, it didn’t really matter whether Cornell was 13-0, 8-5, or 0-13 in its nonconference games. What was most important was what Jones alluded to – how well Cornell was prepared for what mattered most – and they were.
Cornell waltzed through the Ivy League and on March 1, 2008, did something no Ivy program not named Penn or Princeton had done since 1988 – clinch a league title outright. Cornell went 14-0 that season and boasted an average margin of victory of more than 12 points per game. The reward – putting a 16-game winning streak on the line in the NCAA Tournament.
Cornell won a lot of games in 2008 off the strength of its backcourt. first-team All-Ivy Leaguer Ryan Wittman led the team averaging more than 15 points per game, most of which were set up by point guard and Ivy Player of the Year Louis Dale. Wittman and Dale were going to be key if Cornell had plans to play Cinderella, but after Selection Sunday, everyone’s focus turned to the frontcourt. Cornell had a tall task in front of them, both literally and figuratively. Their opponent, the third-seeded Stanford Cardinals, who featured 7-foot twins Brook and Robin Lopez.
It was an ugly day for Cornell. Foote didn’t yet have the physicality to compete with two future top-15 NBA picks, but it wasn’t only Stanford’s size. That season, the Cardinals held opponents to under 40% shooting and its first round matchup against Cornell wouldn’t be any different. Cornell connected on only five field goals in the first half and shot 1-for-16 during a key 23-5 Stanford run that ended the period. Wittman and Dale couldn’t get going and ended the afternoon shooting just a combined 5-for-32. Bottom line, it was ugly.
Fortunately for Cornell, it wasn’t going anywhere. The core was young and they had just gotten a taste what it’s like to be on top and a first hand look of what it took to compete there. The Red was back in the NCAA Tournament the following year, but fell again, this time to Missouri. The window of opportunity was closing, but the Cornell core didn’t want to leave without seriously leaving their mark the history book, they had one more chance.
Stay tuned for the No. 1 moment in Cornell basketball history…