For one winter season, Ithaca wasn’t only showering precipitation. Instead, it became more common for it to be raining 3's –– an occurrence that became so regular that it might as well have been this athlete’s signature tagline. But beyond constantly shooting successful 3-pointers during some of the most pivotal games in Cornell basketball history, senior forward Ryan Wittman did so much more, earning him the title of Sun Athlete of the Year.
Wittman’s career success that places him among the top athletes in program history can be traced back all the way to his first season here. Named Ivy League Rookie of the Year in 2006-07, he started off on the right foot as he set two new school records –– one for most freshman points scored, and one for the most 3-point field goals made in a single season with 93.
“I remember his first game as a freshman against Northwestern University, which we won,” said former Cornell head coach Steve Donahue. “He made 18 points in the game and said to me after that he didn’t feel he played well. That said a lot to me –– as his first game as a freshman, he didn’t feel he played well! I knew at that point that we had a special player.”
His accomplishments did not stop after his rookie season, but instead continued to grow through his next three years here. He earned countless awards and honors in every season, including unanimous selection to the First-team All-Ivy selections his sophomore, junior and senior years.
This year, he averaged 17.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists and set a new mark with a 109 3-point field goals –– an Ivy League record. He scored a record of points in a single game with the 34 he netted against LaSalle –– a game the Red played down two senior starters, guard Louis Dale and tri-captain Alex Tyler. As he helped take the team to the NCAA Sweet 16 round, he was named an Associated Press Honorable Mention All-American and was the third-ever Cornell athlete to earn the Ivy League Player of the Year distinction. The list goes on, seemingly endless.
“What he provided statistically for the team is obvious,” Donahue said.
However, what makes Wittman stand out beyond just being a talented player in numbers is what he brings to the team as a person –– both on and off the court.
For example, when Wittman came to Cornell, he already was pretty familiar with the professional basketball setting, with NBA coach Randy Wittman as a father and was set up to get a lot of attention right from the beginning.
“The guys appreciate that he gets so much attention but never let it get in the way of the team. He’s great at being one of the guys, both on and off the court, and he’s very respected,” Donahue said.
Senior tri-captain and center Jeff Foote echoed Donahue’s sentiments, explaining how Wittman is like a brother to him and the rest of the team and that these close bonds definitely improved team chemistry on the court to help them to success.
“He kind of led by example, and he did what he does very well and consistently,” Foote said, adding that he always did so with humility and is just a good person to be around.
Donahue’s praise for Wittman in the personality department was almost as infinite as the list of awards the athlete holds.
“Ryan is someone who probably could’ve scored a lot more points if he was a selfish person, which he isn’t. He understood that we needed him to score and needed him to be a player in every aspect –– he needed to rebound, defend, find the open man, etc. –– and he was able to do this in addition to being a good scorer, further making him a good basketball player,” Donahue said. “It was an incredible privilege to coach him. I enjoyed every moment of it; he’s coachable, a great kid … I know I may never get to coach another player like him.”
Going into the 2009-10 season, Wittman knew that the team had a goal in mind and he and the guys worked tirelessly until they made it there.
“After going into [the NCAA tournament] the previous two years, we really put it upon ourselves to work hard to get where we wanted,” Wittman said. “And we made it very far and had a great time and a lot of fun while doing so.”
In order to be a good leader of a team going to such heights, Wittman stated that he would attempt to lead by example, always putting in much effort in practice and never really taking time off. In terms of his 3's, Wittman would change up his game slightly each year since his rookie season and would put in extra effort over the summer to make sure that his game was not lacking.
“A lot of credit for my success goes to my teammates,” Wittman added. “Playing together and playing team ball with them has really helped my own game … Louis Dale and Jeff Foote deserve [the honor of Ivy League Player of Year] just as much as, if not more than, me because they would always be working offensively and defensively all over the court and making my job easier. If Foote’s getting double-teamed, leaving me an open shot, it makes things easy.”
Wittman hopes that in the future he can play professionally. He’s been working both individually and playing pick-up games with the other guys on the team in an attempt to play for the NBA. If not, he will look over to Europe to see if he can play there. Regardless of where he goes, though, Wittman has clearly cemented his legacy in Cornell athletics as a great leader, athlete, teammate and all-around person.
Jeff Foote said it best: “Ryan Wittman is a fantastic guy, and he has an endearing smile.”