After spending the offseason improving in all facets of the game, a young but experienced basketball team tips off its 2002-03 campaign tonight on the road against Buffalo. Despite an uninspiring 5-22 record a year ago, the Red is confident of returning from its trip to western New York with a win despite two significant frontcourt injuries.
6-8 sophomore captain Eric Taylor said of the Red’s opener: “Friday night is going to tell us a lot. It is definitely going to be fun, and we’re going to learn a lot about ourselves. But right now, I think we’re in good shape. We’ve gotten a lot better from last year, and I think we’re going to prove that Friday against Buffalo.”
If the Red is going to win, it will have to depend on a balanced effort led by Taylor, a center, and 6-4 sophomore swingman Cody Toppert. Toppert and Taylor were both significant contributors as freshmen, and have shown signs of improvement in the preseason. In an exhibition against Carleton College, the top-ranked collegiate team in Canada, Toppert contributed 14 points on 6-for-10 shooting, while Taylor scored 15 points and pulled down 11 rebounds.
Toppert is eager to begin his sophomore year, saying, “Personally, I feel relaxed going in. The experience that everyone got last year is going to flow right into this season. We’re way more relaxed, way more comfortable with the offense. Just knowing the college game will help everyone. No doubt, this year things are going to start off different, and we’ll be ready to go.”
Joining Taylor and Toppert in the starting lineup will be power forward Grant Harrell and guards Steve Cobb and Ka’Ron Barnes. Cobb, a 6-5 sophomore, will look to build upon last year’s late-season success, when he scored 9 ppg and 5.1 apg over the last seven games. Harrell, a slender 6-6 power forward, started the last eight games in 2001-02 and will be asked to improve upon last year’s averages of 2.6 ppg and 2.3 rpg.
The game will be a homecoming of sorts for the Buffalo native Barnes, the lone junior on the team.
Nonetheless, the junior captain downplayed its importance, saying, “Of course it’s always good to go home. My family can see me, but they try to come down here to see games too, but other friends who can’t will be able to see me up there. But I don’t think its too tough to play against them, since a lot of the guys aren’t from the area. But even if they were, it wouldn’t be a factor. I’d still be going all out.”
More importantly, the shooting guard is looking to improve upon a lackluster sophomore year, when he was limited by broken hand. After being the leading Ivy freshman in scoring in 2000-01, Barnes scored only 8.6 ppg last year, including only 2.5 ppg after sustaining his injury.
A handful of other players will see significant action as well. Diminutive sophomore point guard A.J. Castro will back up Cobb, with fellow sophomore Kevin Farley seeing time down low. Additionally, freshman swingmen Lenny Collins and David Lisle will get their first taste of Division I basketball. Senior captain Jacques Vigneault, an excellent perimeter shooter, is another option off the bench. Freshman guard Casey Gibbons may see some time as well.
Unlike Cornell, Buffalo has lost significant contributors from last year’s 12-18 team that defeated the Red 65-54. Gone are forward Darcel Williams, who terrorized the Red with 19 points and 15 rebounds last season, and the team’s two other leading scorers. Nonetheless, head coach Reggie Witherspoon brought in a heralded recruiting class, and returns talented sophomore guard Turner Battle and senior forward Clement Smith. Battle, a versatile, lightning-quick guard, contributed 7.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, and 3.4 apg in 2001-02. Smith chipped in 6.2 ppg while adding 3.7 rpg. Additionally, guard Calvin Cage and swingman Roderick Middleton, two freshmen, and 6-10 oft-injured sophomore center Kyle Bortz may pose matchup problems for the Red with their size, strength, and quickness.
Overall, the Bulls are bigger, stronger, and quicker than the Red. However, Cornell is confident that its shooting and decision-making skills are superior to those of Buffalo. The Red is excited about the opportunity to play against an aggressive Buffalo team, and is confident it can return to Ithaca victorious.
Head coach Steve Donahue commented about this year’s team: “Our guys feel very confident, and they’re ready to go. You’ll see them play well, and they’re looking forward to this opportunity to prove what they are about. They’re excited to show people we’re a good team.”
Archived article by Mark Fetzko