Flash back to 1988. The men’s basketball team was 17-10, 11-3 in the Ivy League. The Red was the Ivy League champion and in the NCAA postseason tournament.
In the 14 years since Cornell’s ’88 title, no team other than Penn and Princeton has held the Ancient Eight crown. This season, the two teams seem once again to be the squads to beat.
This weekend, the Red travels to Philadelphia and New Jersey to take on the perennial powerhouses. Tonight, Cornell will visit the Quakers (14-4, 1-1 Ivy), who have the best overall record in the conference. The Red will follow up with a contest at Princeton (7-7, 2-0 Ivy), which remains the only unbeaten team within the league.
“These are two of the best teams we’ll play all year, in or out of the league, because they play so hard, and they do so many things well on the basketball court,” head coach Steve Donahue commented.
Cornell hasn’t had much good fortune on the road recently. The Red has dropped 13 straight games on the road and seven straight league away contests. Both streaks date back to last season. In addition, Cornell hasn’t taken a win from Penn on the road since the 1988-89 season, a 12-game skid. What is going in the Red’s favor is its defense. Cornell’s opponents are shooting just .415, and over the Red’s last 10 games, it has held opponents to a .404 field goal percentage.
“I think that’s our staple this year, that we play pretty consistent defense,” Donahue noted. “No one’s shooting over 50 percent, we’ve kept people around 40 percent.”
Offensively, sophomore guard Ka’Ron Barnes is leading the team with 9.9 points per game, but senior co-captain Wallace Prather has been the hot shooter lately, averaging 13.8 points over his last nine games.
On the other side of the court, Penn is currently one of the hottest teams in the league, having lost just one game in its past nine, a 78-75 overtime defeat at the hands of Harvard. The Quakers haven’t lost by more than seven points all season, with their most severe defeat coming against nationally ranked Illinois. On Tuesday night, Penn completed a 4-0 sweep of the Philadelphia region’s Big 5 for the first time since the 1973-74 season with a 81-76 overtime win against La Salle.
The Quakers’ field goal percentage of .466 is tops in the league, and they also pace the Ivies in 3-point shooting percentage and assist/turnover ratio. Four Pennsylvanians are averaging double figures, while three of them are in the top seven in Ivy scoring — Juniors Ugonna Onyekwe (17.4), Koko Archibong (15.8) and Andrew Toole (13.7).
“We’re trying to hold them to 55 points, under 40 percent shooting, and if we do that, it’s gonna give us a good chance of winning,” Prather stated.
“For us to win, in all honesty, we’re probably gonna have to keep them below 40 percent,” agreed Donahue. “I think both teams present a lot of problems for us.”
For Donahue, the visit to the Palestra will have additional meaning, as Donahue served as an assistant to Penn head coach Fran Dunphy for 10 years before taking his job at Cornell.
“It’s a lot different for me this year than it was last year, because I literally practiced and worked out the guys on the [Penn] team last year,” recalled Donahue. “I have guys here who made a commitment to our program, and I feel very strongly towards them now. I’m a foreigner going in now. Last year I didn’t necessarily feel that way.”
The Tigers won’t roll over for Cornell either. Despite a 4-7 start, Princeton is again at the top of the Ivy leaderboard. The Orange and Black traditionally feature a strong defense, having the longest streak in Division I of not allowing 100 points — 908 games, going way back to 1968. This year is no different. The Tigers dominate both inside, where they lead the league in rebounding defense, and outside, where they lead the league in 3-point field goal percentage defense.
While Princeton’s offense isn’t as potent as Penn’s, it still has weapons that the Red will need to keep an eye on. Senior forward Mike Bechtold leads the team with 9.8 points per game, and three other players average eight or more points per game.
“They have experience where they need it, at the point guard spot, at the power forward spot — Bechtold and [senior guard Ahmed] El-Nokali,” Donahue said. “They’re dangerous as hell.”
Within the Ivy League, the Tigers have been close to unstoppable lately, especially at Jadwin Gym. Princeton has won seven Ivy games in a row since losing to Cornell last season, and 48 consecutive home games against Ivy teams excluding Penn.
Another factor in the contests this weekend will be the home fans at the Palestra and at Jadwin Gym, where the crowds are far bigger than the average Ivy basketball audience.
“At the Palestra, [we can expect] a lot of heckling,” predicted Prather. “Jadwin is pretty much the same.”
Past history and the venues won’t make a difference to the Red over the weekend, however. What counts in these games is performance.
“They may be projected to have a little more talent,” remarked Prather. “But it’s all about execution. We don’t go into any game thinking that one team is better than the other team. We’re just trying to go out there and play our best and just make things happen.”
Archived article by Alex Fineman