For Cornell’s first-year head coach Brian Earl, the 2016-17 campaign was going to have challenges typical to many new Ivy League coaches. In addition to bringing some new staff and a different playing style, the coach was not able to recruit any of his own players. With only one first-year coming to East Hill in the fall, the team was similar to the one that went 10-18 overall and 3-11 in the conference last year.
With one end-of-season dismissal from the school, as well as the loss of several key contributors, the coach has had the added dilemma of going through most of the season with a shorter bench than the one he viewed from the opposing side when he was the Princeton associate coach. Despite the roster changes, the coach and the team have quietly adapted and reached a point where they appear to be playing their most successful basketball of the season.
Starting the year, the coach had a lineup with three forwards (David Onuorah, Stone Gettings and Donovan Wright) and two guards (Matt Morgan and Robert Hatter). Following the first game of the year, Onuorah developed an illness from which he has not returned. This forced the coach to move to a three-guard starting lineup, adding JoJo Fallas.
Following a minor injury to Wright five games into the season, the coach moved to a four-guard set. Wil Bathurst was added into the starting five, but was quickly replaced by Troy Whiteside. After the completion of the Las Vegas Classic in late December, Wright left the program and the lack of frontcourt depth resulted in an even more guard-centric team.
Heading into league play, the Red found themselves at 4-11. The team beat Northeastern, but lost to Houston, Siena, Albany, Monmouth, Syracuse and Wyoming. In addition to the losses against the more competitive teams, there were unexpected defeats by lower ranked Binghamton, Colgate and UMass-Lowell. With the opener against Columbia nearing, the squad’s performance seemed to justify its seventh-place slot in the preseason media poll.
Once league play began, however, the team found itself playing more inspired basketball. While some of it is due to playing more familiar opponents, there have been some recent changes to the lineup that have played a major part in the team’s resurgence.
Shooting guard Jack Gordon, who had averaged 3.6 minutes and 0.2 points a game before the last nonconference game against Fisher College (NAIA), was given an expanded role. Also, following a minor injury to Hatter early in the second half of the conference opener, Bathurst and senior Darryl Smith were given more playing time. When Hatter came back last weekend, he came off the bench and played fewer minutes.
With the changes, Cornell now has depth to handle the grueling back-to-back Ivy conference games.
While Morgan is still the team’s premier player and Gettings continues to have an increased role in the coach’s new style, Bathurst has been able to take charge as a leader on the court. During the Dartmouth game, Big Red announcers Barry Leonard and Eric Taylor (three-time Cornell captain, 2002-05) both singled out the combo guard as Cornell’s best player in the last three games. (For what it’s worth, I put the same note down on my scorecard sitting at the Columbia game two weeks ago.)
Hatter remains one of the better ball handlers on the team and is arguably the squad’s best at driving to the lane. Adjusting his minutes has allowed Bathurst and Whiteside to get more involved in the offense, while limiting his biggest weaknesses, turnovers and three-point shooting. It also decreases scoring droughts and provides leadership to the second unit.
Statistically, the numbers have reflected the improvements from these recent changes. Since the second half of the league opener, the Red are scoring a similar amount as they did in the first 15.5 games (72.0 to 72.8), but they are doing it more efficiently. For the majority of the season, they were shooting 44.2 percent overall, 34.6 percent from three and 52.5 percent from two. They were putting up 27.6 three-point attempts and converting 9.5 of them. From two, the Red were attempting 31.9 and making 16.8.
Over the last 3.5 games, they are shooting 49.2 percent overall, 34 percent from three and 59.8 percent from two. The team has taken 22.6 threes over this period and hit 7.7. From two, they are averaging 19.1 made baskets on 32 attempts.
Defensively, the Red are holding opponents to 8.8 less points a game. In the first 15.5 contests, teams were shooting 45.3 percent – 37 percent from three and 49.3 from two. Over the last 3.5 games, the overall shooting is down to 41.5 percent. While teams still hit 49.2 percent from two, they are making 1.5 fewer buckets a game. The biggest difference is with three-pointers, where teams are shooting 26.4 percent and making 2.1 fewer baskets a game.
The team has improved its rebounding, going from a -2.1 margin over the first 15.5 games to +1.2 over the last 3.5. The offensive rebounding percentage, a trouble spot for the team for most of the season, has increased 4.1 percent over this period (22.3 to 26.4 percent). Also, for a team that has had nationally low numbers of takeaways, the team has gotten three more steals and forced two more turnovers a game in the last 3.5 contests.
There are still areas to work out as the conference schedule continues. The team continues to have trouble at the free throw line (67.6 percent in the first 15.5 games and 68.3 percent in the last 3.5 with 1.1 more made free throws a game), committing turnovers (14 in the first part and 16.3 in the last 3.5) and giving up offensive rebounds (26.4 to 29.9 percent).
Over the last few weeks, the improvements have been apparent to people watching the team play. The Red are moving the ball, getting back door layups, and finding the open man much more than they have all season. Defensively, Cornell’s opponents are being challenged and taken out of their rhythms more frequently. Emotionally, the team’s has been able to bounce back twice in the early conference schedule.
Not only were the Red able to rebound from a home loss in the league opener against Columbia to take the return match one week later, but they came back from a disappointing late defeat to Harvard to completely control Dartmouth the next evening.
While the team may have a statistically low chance of making it into the top four this season, its recent play shows that it is capable of exceeding expectations. As the team and the coach get more familiar with each other, Cornell’s fan base should be more optimistic – and the rest of the league more concerned – about the team’s future.