With a talented senior class gone and eight new freshmen on the team, Cornell basketball is sticking to the same principles that it has since head coach Bill Courtney arrived on campus five years ago: play fast, attack the basket and suffocate opponents on defense. With the departure of Shonn Miller ’15, Galal Cancer ’15 and Devin Cherry ’15, Courtney said that, while the team is still set on forcing opponents to play fast, Cornell has a ways to go to play at the same defensive level as last year.
Last year’s squad held opponents to the lowest field goal percentage in the Ivy League. Opponents shot just 39 percent against the Red, a number which ranked in the top twenty nationally.
“Shonn Miller was such a good defender, not only with his shot blocking and defensive rebounding, but his ability to guard 1-5 on the floor,” Courtney said. “When you lose a guy like that you have to kind of change what you’re doing. We’ll be a little more aggressive with our defense, take some more chances with the full court, take some more chances in the half court.”
While the team may not improve on defense, Courtney and his team said they’re confident that the squad will be a better offensive team than last year.
“The difference between this year and last year is this year we have a lot more weapons on offense,” said junior guard Robert Hatter. “A lot of guys can put the ball in the basket. We can score from the inside and out.”
Much of the scoring will fall to the 6-foot-2 Hatter, who was second on the team in scoring last year with 11.3 points per game, the most among all returning players. With the graduation of Cherry, who mainly played point guard last season, Hatter will see some time at both guard positions this year.
Joining him in the backcourt are a number of younger guys. Freshman guard Matt Morgan is listed as the starter against Georgia Tech and everyone has spoke highly of the 6-foot-3 guard.
“I love it,” Hatter said of sharing the floor with Morgan. “The team calls him mini-me. I’m just trying to get him there. He can get the ball in the basket. He can play, and he’s really talented. Me and him together we’ll be able to do some special things I believe, so I’m very excited about that.”
Junior guard Darryl Smith, who saw his play time decrease last year after a solid freshman season, is also returning and will start against Georgia Tech. Another returning guard is junior JoJo Fallas who saw time in every game last season as a three point specialist off the bench. Courtney also said freshman Troy Whiteside will see time at point guard this season. With so many talented guards, speed will definitely be an advantage for the team, according to Courtney.
But while the team is deep at the guard position, Cornell does not have too many big men. The squad does have junior forward David Onuorah, the other returning starter outside of Hatter. The 6-foot-9 Onuorah was a big reason why Cornell’s defense was as good as it was last season. While he struggled on offense last year, Onuorah’s offseason focus on offense was praised by Courtney.
“He’s made an incredible jump and hopefully that’s something that will translate into games,” Courtney said. “He works harder than any guy we have. He’s in here constantly working on his post moves, working on his jump shot, working on his free throws. I’ve never seen a kid work on free throws as much as he does.”
Rounding out the starting five is sophomore Jordan Abdur-Ra’oof. According to Courtney, with such a young team, Abdur-Ra’oof and the other sophomores will have a much larger role this season.
For its first game of the season, Cornell will get a taste of a major conference in a matchup against Georgia Tech. The Red’s non-conference schedule is difficult; the game against the Yellow Jackets is the first of three classes against ACC foes. But Courtney said this exposure to Power-5 conference teams with great size is a good way to warm-up for the Red’s Ivy League schedule.
“It gives us a chance to play against top notch competition,” Courtney said. “When we get to the Ivy League, which is an incredibly strong league this year, we’ll be prepared after playing against some of the best teams in the country.”
Playing in Atlanta holds particular significance to Onuorah who grew up outside of the city. One of his high school teammates will be suiting up for the Yellow Jackets tonight.
“I’m really excited,” Onuorah said about playing in front of friends and family. “I just want to go out there and give it my all. Not a lot of people get a chance to go home. I’m excited for the opportunity, and I just want to go out there and have fun and show them what Cornell basketball is all about.”