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Sports Then and Now

Cornell Men Seek to Be Bracket Busters in NCAA Tournament

Posted on March 15, 2010 by Chris Kent

Big Red players and fans react as the Cornell name is revealed during the NCAA Tournament selection show. Cornell is seeded 12th in the East Region and will play 5th-seeded Temple in the first round.

Big Red players and fans react as the Cornell name is revealed during the NCAA Tournament selection show. Cornell is seeded 12th in the East Region and will play 5th-seeded Temple in the first round.

For three years running, making history or ending droughts has been as common for the Cornell men’s basketball team as gorges are to the university’s location in Ithaca, NY. The 2007-2008 team finished 22-6 to establish a school single-season record for wins en route to capturing the Big Red’s first Ivy League Championship in 20 years. That team also became the first in school history and only the 13th in league history to go undefeated in league play at 14-0.

Last season’s club went 21-10 overall and 11-3 in the league while becoming the first Ivy League team other than Penn or Princeton to win back-to-back league titles. Cornell’s 2009-10 team has set an abundance of individual and team records lead by 6-foot-7 senior sharpshooting forward Ryan Wittman who became the Big Red’s all-time leading scorer (1,974 points) and was named the Ivy League Player-of-the-Year. However the biggest news for Cornell (27-4) this past regular season came on Feb. 1 when the Big Red was ranked 25th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, its’ first national ranking in 59 years.

Cornell remained ranked in the same poll the following week on Feb. 8 when it climbed to No. 22. After suffering their only league loss of the season, a 79-64 setback at Penn on Feb. 12, the Big Red fell out of the poll. However, Cornell has not lost since and has appeared in the others receiving votes category in each poll since then while ending the regular season on a seven-game winning streak.

These accolades and milestones only touch the tip of the iceberg for a Big Red team that has dominated the Ivy League with a 38-4 league mark over the last three years including a 13-1 mark this year. Add in the fact that the Big Red’s eight seniors are 86-32, which is the winningest class in school history, and Cornell has virtually seen it all on the hardwood. The missing ingredient is an NCAA Tournament win.

The Big Red, 0-5 all-time in the NCAA Tournament in four previous appearances, has lost in the first round of the tourney each of the last two years as a 14-seed, falling 77-53 to third-seeded Stanford in 2008 before suffering a 78-59 setback to Missouri last year. Against the Cardinal, Cornell trailed by 21 points at the half and got no closer than 18 in the second half. Last year against the Tigers, who made it to the Elite Eight, the Big Red trailed just 29-25 at the half before Missouri turned a 43-34 lead into a 58-41 edge with a 15-7 run in just under four minutes leaving Cornell trailing by double digits the rest of the way.

Seniors (from L-R) Louis Dale, Jeff Foote, and Ryan Wittman have been pivotal to Cornell's success over the last four years.

Seniors (from L-R) Louis Dale, Jeff Foote, and Ryan Wittman have been pivotal to Cornell's success over the last four years.

However, a year wiser, Cornell stayed with Missouri into the second half. The Big Red went 14-3 in non-conference games this season, beating the likes of Alabama, St. Johns, Massachusetts, and Davidson. Three of their four non-league losses came at home to Seton Hall (89-79), at Syracuse (88-73), and at Kansas (71-66).

Cornell has held its own this season against mid-majors and teams from conferences such as the Big East and Big 12. Excellent play like that is what you need to catch the attention of the tournament selection committee. That paid off on Sunday March 14 as the Big Red was joined by many of their closest fans on campus in Newman Arena which was transformed into a giant living room featuring a big screen television, cheerleaders, the Big Red Bear Mascot, players, coaches, and plenty of pandemonium.

When the announcement came from CBS, Cornell had drawn the 12th seed and will face fifth-seeded Temple on Friday March 19 in the first round of the East Region in Jacksonville, Fla. The game will start at 12:30 p.m. ET at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. The Owls (29-5) won both the regular season and tournament championship of the Atlantic 10, defeating Richmond 56-52 on Sunday in the tourney final.

While these two schools will be meeting for the first time in the sport, their coaches have a long history together. Fran Dunphy, in his fourth year at the helm at Temple, was the head coach at Penn where Big Red coach Steve Donahue was his assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for 10 years before taking the head coaching job at Cornell. This is Donahue’s 10th year at the helm of the Big Red.

“They’re a typical Fran (Dunphy) team,” said Donahue, who was named The Sporting News Ivy League Coach-of-the-Year. “I watched (their) A-10 Tournament run and in the back of my mind I said, ‘You know what, (us playing them) might happen.’ “(Temple) is a good basketball team that we can compete with.”

Like Cornell, The Owls ended the regular season on a seven-game winning streak and will bring a 10-game winning streak, following their three wins in the A-10 Tournament, into Friday’s opening round game. While the Big Red beat many Philadelphia area schools this season such as La Salle, Penn, and St. Joseph’s, not all the players are familiar with Temple outside of knowing that they are coached by Donahue’s former mentor.

Ryan Wittman and the Big Red will look for different results against Temple than against Stanford in 2008 and Missouri in 2009.

Ryan Wittman and the Big Red will look for different results against Temple than against Stanford in 2008 and Missouri in 2009.

“I actually haven’t really seen them play at all this year,” said Wittman, a three-time first-team All-Ivy selection who is just 26 points shy of becoming the Ivy League’s fifth 2,000-point scorer. “I think they’re a pretty solid defensive team. They usually are,” added Wittman, who led Cornell in scoring in 15 of their 31 games this season and tied for the team lead in three others. “I haven’t seen them play at all yet this year so I don’t know a whole lot about them.”

Wittman, who leads the Big Red with 17.5 points per-game, and his teammates will surely be learning about Temple in the next couple days. Donahue and his coaching staff will be working diligently to prepare this team for an NCAA victory or more. Their talent and experience of being on the national stage before is something this senior class has on their side.

“The experience of going to the tournament (before) is going to help us,” said Wittman, a two-time Academic All-Ivy selection and Cornell’s career leader in 3-point field goals made with a current tally of 368. “I think we have got a lot more experience now and that helps with not necessarily the game but the days leading up to it. The mental preparation that you go through with the media, the shootarounds, and everything like that. We all kind of know what to expect with that stuff so we know how to deal with it.”

As far as their seeding goes, history is on the Big Red’s side. A 12 seed has beaten a five seed in recent years including last year when three of the four 12 seeds knocked off a five. In 2006, 12th seeded Texas A&M upset a fifth-seeded Syracuse team, featuring Gerry McNamara, that was fresh off a Big East Tournament Championship in which the Orange became the first Big East team to win the conference’s tournament title while playing four straight days.

“We can’t look too much into the seeding or the past cases of 12 seeds (beating 5’s),” said Wittman, who was named to the’s Mid Major All-Decade Team this year when he was also selected to the United States Basketball Writers Association All-District II Team for the second time in his career. “We’ll just have to work hard in practice and see what happens.”

Senior guard Louis Dale likes Cornell’s chances.

“I was very happy with our seed and our matchup,” said Dale, a three-time first team All-Ivy pick who was the league’s player-of-the-year in 2007-08 as a sophomore. “I feel like we’re playing another mid-major team and that we can kind of match up well against them. I’m looking forward to playing.”

Dale leads the team with 4.8 assists per-game and is third on the team in scoring at 11.9 ppg.

Jeff Foote, a 7-foot senior center, likes the position the Big Red is in. He is one of the team’s tri-captains and feels that the team has matured with their past tournament experiences.

“I think we’re a lot more prepared for it this year,” said Foote, the inaugural recipient of the Ivy League Defensive Player-of-the-Year award in 2008-09 who won it again this season. “We know we’re going in to (the tournament) to win a game. “We have to focus on Temple and that’s where our minds are at right now.”

Foote, who leads the team with 8.2 rebounds per-game and is second in scoring at 12.3 ppg., joined Wittman and Dale on the first team All-Ivy squad this year after being a second team pick as a sophomore and a junior. He scored 17 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, and had 3 blocks in a season-opening 71-67 win at Alabama and later posted a double-double of 19 points and 11 rebounds to go with 5 blocks in a 71-66 win over St. Johns in the ECAC Holiday Festival. Those big numbers against Southeastern and Big East Conference teams bode well for Cornell’s confidence.

“A lot of the pressure that comes with those (non-conference) games, we’re kind of used to that now,” said Foote, who was named the most valuable player of the ECAC Holiday Festival played at Madison Square Garden after he produced 35 points, 25 rebounds, and 5 blocks combined in consecutive victories over Davidson and St. Johns en route to the Big Red winning the event’s championship. “We scheduled a lot of teams in non-conference (play) to kind of model a team like Temple. I think we are really prepared for it this year.”

Add in sophomore starting guard Chris Wroblewski who averages 8.9 ppg and shoots 45.5 percent (51-for-112) from behind the three-point line and Cornell is well-rounded. Senior forward Jon Jacques, a tri-captain, made 20 starts this season, averaged 6.9 ppg., and shot 52.7 percent (68-for-129) from the field.

Finally, any team needs quality reserves off the bench that can make an impact. Whether it be providing added scoring punch or doing the dirty work by diving for loose balls, rebounding, or drawing offensive fouls, the Big Red has all the pieces. One player supplying this hustle play is senior forward Alex Tyler.

Tyler, a tri-captain, is a solid all-around player who brings size and experience off the bench. At 6-foot-7 and 235 pounds, he can bang on the boards and be a physical presence. After starting nearly every game as a sophomore and junior, Tyler came off the bench this year and made his mark.

“When you come off the bench, you got to bring the energy and you got to be ready to go right away,” said Tyler, who contributed 3.1 points and 1.7 rebounds per game this season while averaging 11.4 minutes played. “We have such a deep bench that we can do that this year. When you got guys on your team that can shoot the ball and are talented offensively, you need those energy plays that inspire people and lead people.”

With solid production from the bench combined with what they already have in the starting lineup, Cornell can definitely compete with the best teams in the country. They have already showed that in just a five-point loss at Kansas, the tournament’s #1 overall seed. That is inspiration in its’ own right for a team looking to continue making history with its’ first ever NCAA Tournament win.

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