Cornell men exceeding expectations in impressive 8-1 start

Most people overlooked Cornell ahead of this season. Picked seventh in the Ivy League poll, many expected the Big Red wouldn’t be much of a factor and that the team would likely win few games.

But a month into the season, the Big Red are well on their way to 10 wins before conference play even starts.

Nobody expected the Big Red to start 8-1. With nearly a brand new roster, Brian Earl’s squad has already won more games than the entire 2019-20 season, a team led by now-Syracuse star Jimmy Boeheim.

“It’s really fun,” senior forward Kobe Dickson said after a win over Canisius last week. “I love these guys [and] it’s nice to be winning with them.”

After a year-long break under the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cornell totally revamped its playing style. Formerly a downtempo-style ball club, the Big Red are now among the NCAA leaders in pace and tempo. At just 14.1 seconds per possession, Cornell ties Marquette atop the nation and is also 10th in adjusted tempo, both numbers the Big Red used to sit bottom-50 in.

“[The pandemic] let us run through a new offense for a whole year before trying it on someone else,” junior Jordan Jones said. “We switched everything up.”

And, this new style has worked. Cornell is second in the country at 91.2 points per game and second assists 21.3, trailing Arizona in both categories. The Big Red also place 11th in the country in shooting at more than 50%.

“We’ve had a lot of experience when [the ball] doesn’t go in,” coach Brian Earl said, in reference to previous seasons. “It makes things a lot easier.”

Dickson and Jones have given Cornell a major boost, the former averaging six points and six rebounds and the latter scoring 14 points a game. But, it’s been the newcomers leading the way for the Big Red.

Most consistently, sophomore Keller Boothby has shot lights out since donning the red and white, averaging 10 points and making three-pointers at a 57% clip. The Ivy League named him Rookie of the Week on Monday after shooting 7-for-9 from downtown in a victory over Coppin State.

“He knows he’s got the green light,” Earl said. “It’s always good, not only that he gives you some points, but also that other things are open because of him out there.”

Boothby’s honors were the second time in a row the league awarded a Cornell newcomer for success. A week prior, freshman Nazir Williams won the award after 21 points in a win over Saint Francis (Pa.) and 14 points in Big Red’s only loss of the season at Penn State.

“He’s been helpful,” Earl said. “He plays hard, and with the way we’re playing, we’re able to play a few guards, and he’s really helped us on the defensive end. But also, [he’s] made some pretty big shots.”

Newcomers Chris Manon, Sean Hanson, Isaiah Gray and Guy Ragland, Jr. have all seen valuable minutes, as well as senior Dean Noll. But, holding the team together is upperclassmen duo Sarju Patel and Greg Dolan. Patel, after missing two consecutive seasons under transfer rules and the virus, has averaged nearly 10 points and hit a game-sealing three-pointer against Lafayette last month. Dolan, typically running point guard, is averaging seven points and had eight assists against Canisius.

“Guys are making shots for me,” Dolan said. “I just enjoy getting in the lane and dishing or scoring.”

Although Cornell can celebrate its strong start, the toughest portion of nonconference play has yet to come. The team will play Virginia Tech on Wednesday, and still has Syracuse and reigning America East champion Hartford on the docket this month.

But, win or loss, Wednesday’s Virginia Tech game will tell fans a lot about Cornell. The Hokies allow just 56 points a game, and their defense will challenge the Big Red.

However, one thing is for certain through nine games — Cornell can contend for an Ivy League title.