For the first-ever sit-down meeting for "Coach's Corner", I decided to talk to the head coach for the men's basketball team, Bill Courtney. Coach Courtney and I took some time to discuss how the season is wrapping up and its importance to some of the guys, and what the program plans to do moving forward.
With the final two regular games of the season on Friday and Saturday night at home at Newman, it is definitely a critical stage for the guys. In 2010-11 the boys finished 6-8 in the Ivy League conference, so it really boils down to these last two games this weekend that will show whether the Red is just going to break even with last year's record (as it currently sits at 6-6) or pull ahead. Every little bit of improvement between years matters in keeping spirits high for a younger team, after all.
Saturday's night game will especially be important as Cornell takes on Harvard, who is currently in a steady battle for the Ivy League Championship against Penn after losing to Penn last weekend. In short, the Quakers have three games to go, while the Crimson has two. Penn has nine wins under its belt and Harvard has 10, so if both teams can win the last few games there will have to be a tiebreaker for the title.
"We're going to play the same way either way I think. We're going to play hard, I think we're going to be loose. It'll be the seniors' last game so everyone will be really fired up and excited to play, which will work in our benefit," Courtney mentioned, emphasizing that regardless of who the competition is the Red is trying to end the season on a positive note. For both teams, it is a high-profile regular-season closer that will be broadcasted on national TV.
That being said, it doesn't hurt that Harvard will have its fate partially in the hands of long-time rival Cornell. Who doesn't remember the days of Harvard-star Jeremy Lin before Linsanity, when all Cornell fans stood together on an anti-Crimson front.
With that in mind, this weekend's games will also mark the end of that well-known Cornell basketball era that has been relived in the minds of fans over and over again. The team's run to the Sweet 16 in 2009-10 may finally become a subject of decreased hype as the last big names that experienced extensive playing time two years ago will graduate from the roster. Having such players on the team has been key in getting the Red to its high-spirited position that it currently is in, and will provide a bit of a gap for the younger returning starters to fill in years to come.
"You take a guy like Chris [Wroblewski] who has been phenomenal for me — an integral part of a Sweet 16 team who has to make an adjustment, switching to point guard and not seeing a win every game with the graduation of nine seniors from that year, to now being required to carry a big load for a group of young guys and now rebuilding the program again," Courtney said.
Through all of his hard work, Wroblewski has done a stellar job as a true team player. This latter evaluation can be seen in numbers by the fact that with just one more assist this weekend, Ski will hold the record for all-time leader in assists in Cornell program history.
"He has played a critical role in helping us stay afloat ... his leadership and basketball abilities have been a blessing for me to have my first two years here as a coach. It's definitely going to be hard to see guys like him go."
In order to move forward and try to shape other players on the team into a similar role to Wroblewski, Courtney said that the guys will be working as much as they can during the NCAA tournament time and then in the off-season.
Of course, Courtney noted, there's always a restriction when it comes to the Ivy League about how much practice time can really be allotted.
This is a topic I've heard time and time again — people who come to coach at Ivy League schools after being in other programs see how much tighter and more stringent the rules are when dealing with players. I've heard this when head football coach Kent Austin came over from Ole Miss, and now I was hearing it from Courtney (previously at Virginia Tech). I wondered just how much of an impact these different guidelines make, and whether or not it is worth it to teach at an Ivy League program vs. in a bigger sports conference where one would have the freedom to put emphasis on recruiting by scholarship.
"You have to get used to it," Courtney said. "Take this week for example: Chris Wroblewski is on a job interview Tuesday and Wednesday. It's his senior week and he's missing two practices! Eitan Chemerinski missed the last three weeks for the same thing. But again, I think each job has hurdles.
"I'd rather have the hurdles that we have here in the Ivy League of guys preparing for their future and missing for class assignments, than some other hurdles that I've dealt with in the ACC or the Big East — player behavior, or not getting the job done academically. I'd much rather be coaching these kids ... than elsewhere where there are actually a lot more hurdles than we have here. I love my job and I think I am the luckiest guy in the world, because coaching these kids has been such a joy."
Moving forward on the topic of coaching here, Courtney plans to implement a focus on individual players and individual improvement in order to see progress in the team. Some players who will be in key positions in years to come have been out with injury this season, such as sophomores Jake Matthews and Manny Sahota and, arguably best-player-on-the-team, junior Errick Peck.
"We're going to work with them to help them get better and then also just help the other guys show their potential. With the freshmen that we have recruited, next year's team will be a lot bigger and have size on par with the rest of the Ivy League," Courtney said. "By the end of this Spring, it's just important for all of the guys to understand how much better they need to get."
So it looks like things on the men's basketball front seem to be on the positive lookout. Fans should do their part in keeping team energy high by showing up for the final two games this weekend at home. Courtney noted just how much of a difference it makes in the ability of the players on the court to have a strong supporting home crowd behind them, and specifically referenced Newman Nation jersey night — a night earlier this season with filled stands due to free incentives that resulted in a Cornell overtime win against Yale. Fans at this school should do what they can to help have the senior weekend games find similar results against Dartmouth and Harvard by showing up for the last times this season.