Turning points have the ability to dramatically change a team’s trajectory for better or for worse. But sometimes, even in the longest of seasons, each moment that appears to be a turning point for the better, appears as a false dawn.
For the Cornell men’s basketball team, the desired turning point never really came, as the team trudged to a seventh place finish in the Ivy League with an 8-21 overall record.
A new coach in former Princeton associate Brian Earl sparked an early season buzz that surrounded the team; yet the team recorded the same finish as last season, so perhaps more time will be needed if Earl’s methods are to be properly assessed.
It was a long season. Earl described it as three to four seasons, with the Ivy League only making up the final stage. And within each, there was hope of a turning point.
In preseason play, the Red came from behind to secure their second victory of the season against Northeastern, a Division I program. But soon after, three players decided to call it quits, including athletic sixth man Donovan Wright, who was instrumental in the team’s first victory of the season with a 26 point game against Lafayette.
When asked about the effect of the three player departure, Earl adopted a muted stance.
“As a coach you wonder how many hours you could have spent on other players if you’d have known they’d leave,” Earl said. “It can disturb the feel of the team as [we] lost athletes, [and] guys who can defend.”
This season saw the inaugural Ivy League postseason tournament, repeatedly referred to as the path to the Palestra. With Princeton going undefeated in league play, and Harvard going from strength to strength as well, the battle for the fourth place was one the Red hoped to be apart of.
At the beginning of the league season, it seemed possible. The losses against high caliber opponents in the preseason appeared to toughen the Red just the way Earl desired when asked about the schedule in November. The Red began by avenging a narrow loss to Columbia with a resounding win, following a competitive match against Harvard and a comfortable victory against Dartmouth to open league play, 2-2.
Yet the Red was unable to maintain the momentum of the early regular season, often lacking the experience to close out games. The late loss against Harvard, one which Earl describes as the most memorable, is what stands out as the defining moment. In similar fashion, the Red seemed to relinquish the lead against Yale and Brown in pivotal matches that ended up sending the Red down the league table.
“We need to learn that emotion and risk taking and those type of things don’t win games,” Earl said. “Cool confidence and doing your job win games. What got you to that moment will help you win the game. We lost that as we went down the stretch. We turned it over three times as much as we assisted, and missed a lot of shots.”
As Earl noted, the team’s resilience was commendable, as they truly were capable of winning each match. A strong offense that averaged 70.1 points a game was hindered by the defensive effort of 77.6 points allowed per game.
While Earl has taken the time to evaluate the failings of this season, work is already being put in to ensure that the Red emerges a stronger team next winter. It is his first chance to bring in recruits that fit the mould of his game play, and he aims to add depth to an already strong starting contingent.
The team loses the influential Robert Hatter, 10th highest scorer in Cornell history, a player Earl rates as one of the quickest in the Ivy League and an understated defender. Earl also commended the contributions of seniors Jojo Fallas and Desmond Fleming, who worked selflessly for the team.
But as the clocks roll back next year once more and winter comes about, Stone Gettings, Matt Morgan, and Troy Whiteside will be looking to make their experience count. According to Earl, Gettings had a breakout year, as a constant dangerous threat in the post. There will be more to come from freshman Josh Warren, who began to challenge for a place in the lineup late in the season.
Most significantly, there may still be more to come from Matt Morgan, the team and league’s top scorer in both the last two seasons. While it may be frightening to think where the Red would lie without Morgan, his stellar performances have seen him snubbed a worthy place in the end of season allocades. Both years, despite being top scorer, Morgan was only awarded a place in the All-Ivy Second Team.
However, Earl is unconcerned about the lack of accolades and encourages Morgan not to give thought to them either, explaining the process.
“I know he’s a very good player,” Earl said. He’s a player that everybody worries about when we play against other teams. Normally we will have to win a lot more for him to be up there. There is a bit of sentimentality of it. And wins help you [players] look better in the light of the coaches in the league.”
Perhaps the third time will be the charm, for both Morgan and his fellow sophomores. With another year’s worth of experience under their belts, Gettings, Bathurst, Morgan, Whiteside and Warren will look to mount a credible challenge for the top four of the Ivy League next season.