Cornell getting more out of frontcourt this season

On November 30, Cornell headed into its Finals Break by beating Northeastern, 80-77, for its first home and second overall win of the season.  With the campaign set to resume on Saturday against 7-2 Wyoming, where do things stand for the 2-5 Big Red?

With the hiring of former Princeton player and associate coach Brian Earl, Cornell is moving away from the guard-oriented style that was favored by its previous coach. Since former coach Bill Courtney had only one recruit arriving at East Hill this fall, the new coach was going to have to work with the same team that was 10-18 overall and 3-11 in the Ivies last year.

Last year’s squad played at a fast tempo with pressure defense and one-on-one offense. This year’s team has attempted to slow down the pace on both sides of the ball while becoming a more balanced team that focuses on player and ball movement.

In terms of pace, last year’s team had the 19th-highest adjusted tempo in the nation at 73.3 possessions per 40 minutes.  This year, the number has been brought down to 70.8, which is just below the top 100.

Offensively, the team is averaging 68.4 points on 41.6 percent shooting, which is seventh lowest in the conference.  The three-point shooting is at 30.6 percent, which is the lowest in the Ivies and a 3.5 percent drop-off from 2015-16.  They have the second-lowest assist total in the Ivies, 12.3, but it is a increase of 1.5 from last year. The free throw percentage is also the lowest in the league, at 65.7 percent, similar to last year’s 65.1 percent.

Defensively, Cornell is allowing its opponents to shoot well, hitting 45.5 percent overall and a league high 38.9 percent from downtown. While the shooting defense has declined, the biggest turnaround has been on the boards.  The Red are getting 35.7 rebounds a game, which is an increase of 3.2 from last season.  The team’s opponents are securing 37.9 boards, which is a decline of 4.9.  As a result, the rebound margin is -2.2, but it has a significant +8.1 improvement from 2015-16. The team has also reduced its opponents’ assists to 13.0, which is 3.4 less than last year. With a more controlled defensive effort, however, the steals and forced turnovers have decreased. The Red are causing 4.9 steals a game, and forcing 11.0 turnovers, a 2.9 and 3.7 decline, respectively.

In the season opener, Earl started three in the frontcourt, which was a departure from previous years.  With the shooting and passing skills possessed by 6’9″ forward Stone Gettings, it was decided to move the sophomore into the starting lineup to team with center David Onuorah. With forward Jordan Abdur-Ra’oof on the bench recovering from offseason surgery, sophomore Donovan Wright was added to the starting five.  While Wright is two inches shorter than Abdur-Ra’oof and capable of hitting from the outside, the 6’5″ sophomore appears more comfortable playing down low.

Due to an unspecified illness to the starting center, the coach moved Gettings to center, Wright to the two-spot and used three guards for the following six games.  Despite the change to the lineup, the team has improved its rebounding and the frontcourt has become more involved in the offense.

Gettings has increased his minutes from 9.5 to 24.9, and become a main part of the offense.  He is second on the team with 10.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game.  Wright has averaged 7.0 points and 3.3 rebounds, including a career high 26-point performance with eight three-pointers against Lafayette. First-year forward Josh Warren has come off the bench to add 5.7 points, 5.1 total rebounds and 2.1 offensive boards (the latter of which is third in the Ivies) in 20.3 minutes per game.

All told, Cornell’s frontcourt is producing 54 percent of the offense, 52 percent of the rebounds, and 35 percent of the assists.  Last year, just 16 percent of the points, 18 percent of the boards and 11 percent of the assists were produced up front.

Even with frontcourt improvement, the guards are still the engine that runs Cornell basketball.  Matt Morgan is picking up where he left off in his record-breaking rookie season.  The sophomore shooting guard is scoring 19.0 points a game, including a career high 34 in the victory against Northeastern.  He is hitting 42.9 percent from the field, 37.4 percent from three and 84.8 percent from the charity stripe.  In addition to leading the team and the conference in scoring, Morgan is also the team leading rebounder, with 5.7 a game. In the preseason, the coach discussed Morgan’s need to get others more involved in the offense.  However, he has 2.1 assists per game, similar to last year’s 2.0.

Senior guard Robert Hatter is the team’s second-leading scorer with 10.7 points a game, a 6.4 decrease from last season.  While his 41 percent overall shooting percentage is similar to last year, his three-point percentage has taken a significant drop from 33.1 to 13.3 percent.  The tri-captain is the team’s main ball handler, but his assists have taken a slight decline, from 3.5 to 2.9.  Fortunately, the more deliberate playing style has reduced his turnovers from 3.5 to 2.4, allowing his assist-to-turnover ratio to improve slightly from 1.0 to 1.2.

Fellow senior JoJo Fallas, who has been the team’s three-point specialist the last two seasons, moved into the starting lineup due to the absence of Onuorah.  Averaging 22.6 minutes a game, he has 6.0 points and 1.3 three-pointers on 39.1 percent three-point shooting.  Last year, in playing less 5.7 minutes less, he scored 5.0 points and 1.2 three-pointers on 42.3 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

Darryl Smith, a starter on last year’s team, has see his role reduced this season.  In 2015-2016, the senior guard led the Ivy League, and set a school record, with a 64.9 percent field goal percentage.  This season, he is averaging 12.2 minutes and 4.2 points, compared to his 25.3 minutes and 9.1 points last year.  His playing time has increased over the last four games and he presently has a 70 percent shooting percentage, but his lack of three-point shooting may ultimately limit his involvement.

For Cornell to continue to develop, the team needs to get healthy in the frontcourt.  A two or three-person group can work when there are weekly games, but it will be almost impossible during the FridaySaturday conference matchups.  Additionally, Wright can move back to the three-spot and Fallas can come in off the bench, where he can be as effective as he is as a starter. The Red need to improve their ball movement, player positioning and shooting. They also need to tighten their defense in order to lower its opponents’ two and three-point shooting.

While Cornell does not have players specifically recruited for a Princeton-style team, coach Earl is trying to slowly move the team in that direction.  That can mean moments of frustration for all involved, but the squad and the staff have to continue to put the team first, trust the coach and follow his plans.  While that may not result with an upper-division slot this season, the program appears to be moving in a positive direction and should continue to improve as the coach adds his recruits to the strengths of returning players.