After suffering though a dismal 7-20 record during the 2000-2001 season, the men’s basketball team had hoped to improve this past campaign. As it turned out, the young squad actually posted a worse mark (5-22, 2-12 Ivy). However, if the Red’s late season play is any indication, the team will be a force in the very near future.
Optimism reigned supreme in the preseason with the addition of seven freshmen, which included highly touted center Chris Vandenberg. The 6’10” big man did not disappoint, as he converted an alley-oop slam dunk for the first basket of the Cornell season during the squad’s annual Red-White game.
However, the Red lost its first five games of the season, including a heartbreaking overtime defeat to Bucknell and losses at then No. 10 Syracuse and national power Notre Dame. More disappointing than the 0-5 start was a season-ending knee injury to Vandenberg after just three games. During his brief stint, he made quite a splash, particularly on the defensive end, where he had seven blocks against Canisius in the opener. Without its center, Cornell, already a small team, found itself outrebounded on a nightly basis for the rest of the season.
One of the few highlights of the season was Cornell’s first win against crosstown foe Ithaca College. The Bombers, a Division III club, proved no match for the Red as freshman Cody Toppert had a coming out party, notching a career-high 26 points. Cornell would go on to win two more non-conference games against Lehigh and Army before it embarked upon a tougher than expected Ivy slate.
After its Jan. 8 win over Army, Cornell would not taste victory for another month. During the winless stretch of seven Ivy games, five of which were played on the road, Cornell actually posted several strong performances. The Red lost by just five points to Ivy co-champion Yale at New Haven and challenged Ivy co-champion Penn for the majority of the game at the hostile Palestra. However, the cagers also had undoubtedly their worse contest of the year in a 60-38 loss to Princeton, which saw the Red score just nine first half points.
The Red won its first league contest with a thrilling 63-62 win over Harvard. Although the squad would win just one more game the rest of the way, this was certainly the turning point of the season, as the team played with much more confidence down the stretch. Playing in front of its home crowd in five of its final seven games, Cornell delivered several nail-biters, including a disheartening loss to Ivy co-champion Princeton. Cornell also produced its first road win in the season, as it knocked off Dartmouth in convincing fashion on Feb. 23.
While the team’s record was less than glittering, the relative youth of the squad makes the mark more palatable.
“You’re not pleased with your win total, but if you take a step back and look at what we went through, who we played, and the players in our program at this point, I think it’d be unrealistic to think that we could have won too many more games with our inexperience,” head coach Steve Donahue said.
“I would have loved to win more, but I also believe we’ll look back on this year as one of the beginnings of the foundation that we wanted to have in terms of making this program successful,” he added.
Despite losing senior captains Wallace Prather and Pete Carroll to graduation, Cornell should be improved next season with the maturation of its seven rookies.
“To a man, they all got much better,” Donahue noted of his freshmen. “There was a point in the season that I was concerned that we hit a wall, and we weren’t getting better. The last eight games of the year, we got a lot of good play out of a lot of them.”
In particular center Eric Taylor, forward Cody Toppert, and guard Steve Cobb all logged substantial minutes for the Red. Taylor led the team in rebounding (5.1 RPG), Toppert was the second leading scorer (10.3 PPG), and Cobb assumed the starting point guard duties late in the year.
However, there is still plenty of room for improvement from the rising sophomores.
“They’ve got to really go physically stronger and mentally tougher,” said Donahue.
If the current team members continue to hone their skills, there is no reason why Cornell can’t be a threat next winter.
“Now [with] all the experience that we gained this year and with the addition of Chris Vandenberg and any other recruits we get in, I feel very good about our team,” Donahue commented. “I like the direction that we’re going.”
Archived article by Alex Ip