In Brian Earl’s first three seasons on East Hill, the Cornell men’s basketball team improved from eight to 15 wins, clinching a birth in the 2019 CIT to conclude Matt Morgan’s collegiate career. The Big Red took an expected step back in 2019-20, winning just seven games but setting themselves up for a strong 2020-21 with Jimmy Boeheim and Terrance McBride leading the way.
But, of course, that never happened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Boeheim now plays for his father, Jim Boeheim, at Syracuse, while McBride now plays for the Rice Owls, tabbed eighth in Conference USA.
Headed into the 2021-22 season, the Big Red are without their star power from two years ago but are hoping to develop under a group of returners.
“We took some lumps [in 2019-20] to have a team last year we thought would’ve been really competitive,” Earl said. “Once we knew those guys were going to move on, I think our team did a really good job of coming together – the younger guys realizing that we’re turning the page.”
While Boeheim and McBride are gone, Cornell has a core of players from two years ago to lead the team in a season filled with unknowns.
Most notably, Jordan Jones and Kobe Dickson return for their junior and senior seasons, respectively. Both seemingly progressed throughout the 2019-20 season and were both set for big campaigns last year. Jones missed about half of his freshman season but is ready for a greater role this year.
“A huge focus has been just being able to shoot,” Jones said. “Playing against some really good competition this summer, I think it helped me defensively. From there, [it’s] just applying what I already did well to another level to where I can help this team.”
Jones shot 29% from deep in his freshman year and averaged over seven points a game. His career-high 15 points came against Syracuse in 2019.
Dickson gives the Big Red a veteran presence down low. At 6-foot-9, Dickson is a rim protector that can help Cornell win the rebounding battle, something the team has struggled with in recent years. He can also score in the post and be a traditional big man.
“I spent a lot of time refining what I did well in my sophomore year,” Dickson said. “I spent a lot of time in the post, getting my touch around the right.”
Additionally, Cornell returns junior guard Greg Dolan and senior guard Dean Noll, as well as junior forward Marcus Filien. All three saw valuable minutes off the bench two years ago and will look to make an impact in 2021-22.
Joining the program over the last two seasons are a group of 11 newcomers, 10 of which have never played a Division l basketball game. The exception: senior guard Sarju Patel.
Patel transferred to Cornell from VMI after the 2018-19 season but missed the 2019-20 season with the NCAA transfer rules. He’ll likely have just one year with the Big Red, but he’ll certainly make an impact. He scored more than 10 points a game with VMI while shooting 42% from the floor.
Otherwise, it’s all uncertain for Earl ahead of the season opener Tuesday at Binghamton.
“You use [our veterans] as a bar to see how our current players stack up against them,” Earl said. “You get an idea of what works in the league and the talent level, the decision-making level, and the shooting level.
“There’s a certain level of resilience they’ve all shown with the past year being so difficult on them.”
Cornell has plenty of flaws to tighten up from seasons past, but the group seems up to the challenge.
“The pandemic year, without competing, has given us all a chance to really develop,” Earl said. “When you’re in fierce competition, you sometimes lose sight of trying to get these guys better. That was maybe a benefit of the past year.”