Pop quiz. (Welcome to Cornell). Name the 25th-ranked team in the nation. Very good. Now, name both the No. 304 and No. 279 ranked teams in the nation out of the 347 Division I programs. The answer is this weekend’s competition according to the NCAA basketball Rating Percentage Index. Five days after cracking the ESPN/USA Today Top 25 Coaches Poll, Cornell will look to extend its six-game winning streak as it hosts Yale tonight and Brown tomorrow evening.
Selected to finish fifth in the conference preseason media poll, Yale (8-13, 2-2 Ivy) is led by All-Ivy Player of the Year candidate Alex Zampier. The senior guard to date has edged out senior forward Ryan Wittman (17. 5 ppg.) as the league’s leading scorer with 17.8 points per game. Just as when Cornell (18-3, 4-0 Ivy) faced Harvard star guard Jeremy Lin and Columbia sharp shooter Noruwa Agho, sophomore guard Chris Wroblewski stressed that Cornell must be aware of where Zampier is on the court at all times.
“I think it will be similar to guarding Lin in that regard,” Wroblewski said. “I think both of those players are so talented and can score in a variety of ways, so I think all five guys are going to have to key in on him and know where he’s at on the floor.”
Sterling team defense has been on display of late for the Red, as the team has surrendered a mere 45.6 points per game in its last five outings. The addition of senior forward Jon Jaques to the starting lineup has enhanced the defense’s mobility. Bench contributions from senior Geoff Reeves, junior Adam Wire and Kentucky-transfer Mark Coury have also solidified the Red’s defense. Head coach Steve Donahue has seen improvement in several areas.
“I think our ball-screen defense is very good,” Donahue said. “We’re eliminating penetration to the rim, so you’re not over-helping. We’re limiting teams to one shot. And, the final thing is I think we’re extending our defense a little more. We’ve got some different presses that we’ve been using. Guys are more active in the passing lanes and I think it’s made us a much better defensive team.”
Other than Zampier, junior forward Michael Sands is the only other Bulldog to average double figure scoring this season with 10.6 points per game. Senior center Jeff Foote will have his hands full in the front court as Yale leads the conference in offensive rebounds. Sophomore forward Greg Mangano has also demonstrated a deft shooting touch around the rim for Yale. Both Bulldog big men are listed at 6-10.
“Sands is a bigger, stronger kid,” Foote said. “He’s a lot like [senior forward] Alex Tyler; kind of a big brute. I remember Mangano from last year. He’s a real confident kid. He can shoot the ball a little bit and he’s long and lanky. We have our work cut out for us, but I think we’ll be alright, considering our experience.”
The last time these two teams tangled, Cornell suffered a 72-60 upset loss in New Haven, Conn. The Red was outscored 40-26 in the second half and Zampier scored a team-high 15 points.
“We have our same team back,” Donahue said. “The loss stings you. I hope the guys would have some revenge in them. Yale’s been a good team in this league for the last 10 years since I’ve been a head coach here. Obviously, they’re a real good, quality opponent, who you have to play well against whether it’s home or away.”
Tomorrow night’s game will provide another challenge for Foote if he hopes to take home first-team All-Ivy honors. Brown (7-14, 1-3 Ivy) is led by junior forward Matt Mullery, who ranks as the team’s top scorer, rebounder and shot blocker. Mullery nosed out Foote last season for the last front court spot on the first team All-Ivy squad.
“He’s a real strong player,” Foote said. “He’s really crafty down below the basket and around the rim. He can score in a bunch of ways. He gets under guys, who are bigger than him, and he can outmuscle guys, who are littler than him. I’m sure we’ll have a plan in place for him. He’s really the heart of their team.”
Coach Donahue also noted, “when [Mullery] is playing well, they’re playing well.” Donahue acknowledged that he is the focal point of their offense and has the ability to set up his teammates as a superb passer.
After defeating Yale in its Ivy League opener, Brown has suffered three consecutive conference losses. The bad news for the Bears continued last Saturday when the last-place Penn Quakers recorded a buzzer-beater at the end of regulation for a 55-54 victory. Video replays showed that time had actually expired before the winning layup had left the shooter’s hand, but the incorrect call stood as video malfunctions at the scorer’s table did not afford the officials an opportunity to view the replay.
The Red have won 18 consecutive Ancient Eight games at home, a stretch that spans nearly three years. Cornell’s last loss at home was to Harvard on March 2, 2007. Averaging a near-capacity 3,335 fans per game, Newman Arena has become one of the most difficult places for conference teams to play. Cornell boasts the second-highest home attendance in the Ivy League (Penn 4,460 in the cavernous Palestra seating 8,722) and the players appreciate the support.
“It’s great and it’s exciting,” Wroblewski said. “It gives us an extra hop to our step. It’s a great atmosphere to play in and I can only hope that the games this weekend are the same way.