Cornell Season Preview – The Big Red reset

What happened last year: (10-18, 3-11 Ivy) Cornell was projected to finish last in the league and did just that despite a 2-2 start to league play that included back-to-back wins over Harvard and Dartmouth fueled by freshman phenom Matt Morgan. With a nine-game Ivy skid doing the Big Red’s season in, coach Bill Courtney was dismissed after going 60-113 in six years in Ithaca.

What’s new: The coach, for one. Princeton playing legend and all-star assistant Brian Earl jumped at the opportunity to lead a program, taking over the reins from Courtney and poised to make the Big Red less frenetic at both ends of the floor over time. The team’s lone freshman, Josh Warren, reportedly brings with him a comfort level in the post that the Big Red often lacked last season, and he also brings with him a natural rivalry with Penn freshman Ryan Betley. (Warren and Betley both attended Downington West in Downington, Pa.) But as a Courtney recruit, Warren apparently prefers an up-tempo style, which leads us to …

Offense: How much does Cornell slow things down on this end of the floor? Last season and for much of Courtney’s tenure, the Big Red treated the basketball like a ticking time bomb, too often settling for hoisted treys and poor spacing. Cornell had the fastest tempo in league play and finished worst in the league in offensive efficiency and offensive rebound percentage. Under Earl, the Big Red should configure themselves at least slightly differently, but Earl is working with talent designed for Courtney’s uptempo, one-on-one modus operandi, not his own. And although Princeton’s offense with Earl as an assistant was not the classically methodical “Princeton offense,” it still depended crucially on ball movement, which would be a welcome sight in Ithaca.

And yet, this is not what Morgan and senior Robert Hatter signed up for. In a very insightful Ithaca Journal piece from April, Hatter said of Earl, “I know he knows that we play fast … Myself and Matt, we like to just get it going. I know there are going to be adjustments made, which I’m fine with, but I’m just really interested in the playing style.”

Later in the piece, Hatter added, “When I first heard about him coming from Princeton I definitely thought that,” Hatter said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that.’ But he mentioned that he’s going to adjust to how we are as a team. He has been saying that he wants to see us work out and see where we are rather than forcing us to do what he wants to do.”

Also in the piece, Morgan rightly noted that the Princeton offense hadn’t necessarily been the “Princeton Offense” for a while, so Earl’s offensive tweaks probably won’t result in a mad Hatter or a mad Matt, particularly since the latter was involved in the coach selection process, per the Cornell Daily Sun.

Still, Earl will have to do something to maximize Hatter’s potential and minimize his inefficiencies. Hatter especially fired up too many premature shots last year, shooting at least 50 percent from two-point range just twice in the 10 league games he played in and shooting at least 33 percent from three-point range just three times. More importantly, as Kevin Whitaker noted at NY Buckets, Hatter used up a staggering amount of possessions (at least 34 percent of possessions in five of 10 Ivy games he appeared in), and that shouldn’t continue under Earl’s share-the-rock auspices.

Morgan will be interesting to watch as a sophomore, to say the least. He may not have precisely the ridiculously high scoring stats he did a year ago, but regardless, he’ll need to be accompanied efficiently at that end of the floor by other personnel who have proven they can do just that. Last season, JoJo Fallas shot 42 percent from long range and Darryl Smith led the league in field goal percentage.

Defense: Cornell’s pressure defense gave away too much too often, including allowing offensive rebounds that allowed opposing teams second and third opportunities that took Cornell away from the uptempo, back-and-forth style it wanted to achieve. Earl’s defensive acumen should help enhance the Big Red’s defense, but he can’t make people taller.

This is a really small team, and that hurts on the defensive end of the floor, where guarding the rim got lost in the shuffle at times. Senior David Onuorah is more than capable in that regard, registering multiple blocks in 11 games last year. But the 6-foot-9 Onuorah also committed four fouls in 10 of 14 Ivy games, underscoring Cornell’s ineffective interior defense. Sophomore Stone Gettings (6-foot-9) and junior Jordan Abdur-Ra’oof (6-foot-7) must come through defending the paint, undersized though they may be.

Intangibles: Cornell’s Sweet 16 run in 2010 was … well, six years ago. But Earl brings with him an instant knowledge of the entire Ivy League as well as a coaching philosophy that should at times provide a welcome counterpoint to Cornell’s free-wheeling tendencies established under Courtney. The Big Red found themselves a dynamo last year in Morgan, and now one of the league’s greatest tacticians is in Ithaca as well. Fallas was sold on Earl instantly, and it’s likely that by the end of this season – even if Cornell doesn’t finish higher than sixth or seventh – most Big Red fans will have found ample reason to buy in too.

3 thoughts on “Cornell Season Preview – The Big Red reset”

  1. Really great article, Mike! You summarized things expertly, as usual.

    During one of the latter games of the 2015-2016 season, the Cornell announcers mentioned that the team lacked an identity. As Coach Earl enters his first season as a head coach, one of the main things he will need to do is create an identity for his new program. Looking back at Coach Earl’s career as a player and an Assistant Coach, the idea of discipline comes to mind.

    The team will need to be more focused in all aspects of the game. On offense, they have lots of weapons, especially if they can improve its front court scoring with Gettings and Donovan Wright. In order to do that, they will need to improve, greatly, on its last-in-the-league assist total from last season.

    In the recent league teleconference, the coach emphasized that this is a part of Matt Morgan’s game he has been trying to strengthen. Hopefully, the coaching staff can continue to emphasize this for Morgan and the other members of the backcourt.

    With regards to Hatter, you are correct that the coach needs to maximize the Mad Hatter who can put up points quickly with the Maddening Hatter who is offensively inefficient. The coach may have to seat the senior captain if he starts playing a more self-oriented game. It may not be the most popular move, but a necessary one.

    A more disciplined approach should help Onuorah, the team’s best rebounder, avoid early foul trouble and stay on the court for longer periods of time. It may not be enough, however, to help with the rebounding. The team was last in the league in rebounding and has only added Josh Warren. While Warren has definite potential, he does not appear to be strong enough, at this time, to be able to change the numbers significantly.

    The team has some tough non-conference road games against Siena, Monmouth, Albany, USC, Houston, and Syracuse. It should have better chances in the rest of its non-conferences schedule. Fatigue may be the toughest thing for Cornell in the first half of the season, since they only have 4 home games. In the end, 8-7 or 7-8 may not be out of reach for the squad in the non-conference schedule.

    With regards to the Ivy League, the Red fortunately start off with 5 of its first 6 games at Newman Arena. If they can find a way to sweep fellow lower division Columbia in the first two weekends and hold home court against Penn and Brown, a shot at the #4 spot could be within reach.

    Like Steve Donahue at Penn last season, the ultimate record in Earl’s inaugural season will not be as important as creating a blueprint for long term success.

    • Thanks Rob, expert analysis from you as well. I think a greater display of discipline in year one is more important than wins and losses, as you note.

  2. To be honest, there is some low-hanging fruit for improvement on this team, especially on defense. Courtney pretended to play “pressure defense” but that requires cohesive commitment on every possession–most of the time Cornell looked like a team that was too lazy and impatient to prolong the opponent’s possession, preferring to make free-lance gambles without teammates ready to backup their play. A small team must also emphasize boxing out to survive defensively; that is difficult to do when players don’t stay between their man and the basket. I expect Earl to make the defense more stalwart just by getting all on the same page and controlling how and when they apply ball pressure.

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