Despite having dropped five of its past six games, the men’s basketball team is still in the hunt for an upper-division finish going into this weekend’s away contests at Yale and Brown. At 8-13 and 3-5 in Ivy play, this is already head coach Steve Donahue’s most successful club, and the Red sees the final three weeks of league competition as an opportunity to establish momentum for next year.
Tonight’s showdown with Yale (10-11, 4-4) not only gives Cornell a chance to avenge an embarrassing 76-47 defeat to the Elis on Feb. 1st, but also a chance to pass them for fourth place in the Ivy standings.
Tomorrow’s game pits the Red against one of the Ivy League’s biggest surprises; the Brown Bears, owners of a sparkling 7-1 conference record, good for second in the Ivy League. In its first match-up against Cornell, Brown never trailed on its way to a 70-54 victory at Newman Arena Jan. 31.
Unlike Brown, Yale has been one of the league’s biggest disappointments this season. Last year’s Ivy tri-champions, the Bulldogs have struggled to find consistency this season despite returning all of its key players. Sophomore guard Edwin Draughan leads the underachieving Elis in scoring at a modest 12 ppg, but an impressive ten Elis contribute four or more points per game. Forward T.J. McHugh is the only other Bulldog scoring in double figures, averaging 10.2 ppg on 57 percent shooting.
Overall, Yale averages just less than 70 points a game and had one of its best performances against the Red in early February. Continually exploiting the Red’s zone defense, the Elis shot 46 percent from the floor while seven different players scored six points or more. Forwards Ime Archibong and Matt Minoff led the way, chipping in 14 and 11 respectively.
“Their zone offense just killed us last time, and we didn’t match up well with their personal or what they were running. There really isn’t one guy we can key on, because they are all solid players. We just need to improve our effort from last time we played them because it wasn’t what it needed to be,” explained freshman forward Lenny Collins.
While Yale has no bonafide star, Brown’s game plan focuses around All-Ivy guard Earl Hunt. A four-year starter and the all-time school leader in scoring, Hunt averages 19 ppg on 45 percent shooting. He has also adds 4.3 rpg and just over two assists per game.
However, Brown is not just a one man team, boasting one of the conference’s best point guards, Jason Forte. The diminutive sophomore averages 11.5 ppg and has developed into one of the most prolific point guards in the Ivies, distributing almost six assists per contest. Additionally, he leads Brown with 40 steals on the year.
Hunt and Forte constitute one of the more formidable backcourts in the Ivy League, but center Alai Nuualiitia anchors a solid frontcourt. He is one of the most efficient big men in the league, averaging 12.5 ppg on 61 percent shooting. He also contributes a team high 5.3 rpg.
“It’s like a three headed monster. Earl scoring all over the place, Forte creating for other guys, and Nuualiitia down in the post. You can’t really focus on any one of them. You’ve got to try to slow them all down, which is tough sometimes, but I think we’ll do it this time,” commented guard Ka’Ron Barnes.
Joining Brown’s three headed monster of Brown, Forte, and Nuualiitia in the starting lineup are Patrick Powers and Mike Martin. In the Bears 70-54 victory over Cornell in January, all five scored in double digits, paced by Hunt’s 18 points. Overall, Brown is one of the Ivy League’s most potent offenses, averaging 72.4 ppg.
Meanwhile, if the Red is to reverse its fortunes against Yale and Brown, it will need Barnes to maintain his recent offensive production. The junior tri-captain has scored in double figures in his past five games, including a 20 ppg average over his last three contests.
In last Saturday’s victory over Harvard, Barnes erupted for a career-high 25 points on a sizzling seven of ten shooting performance. Overall, he is averaging 13 ppg on 44 percent shooting, and dishing out a team high 4.0 apg.
“He’s had a terrific year and he keeps getting better. I see things in his game that are continually improving. He needs to play well for us to do well. It’s hard because I’m asking him to get other people involved and still score 15-20 points so we can win games. But, he’s done a great job and I think he is one of the best guards in the league,” said Donahue.
Another key member of the starting five is the team’s leading scorer, 6-8 center Eric Taylor. Though Taylor’s production has dropped off slightly in recent weeks, he still leads the team with averages of 13.3 ppg and 7.0 rpg, as well as a .565 shooting percentage. He scored 15 points and hauled in seven rebounds in helping the Red break its losing streak against Harvard, and averaged 12 points and seven rebounds in this season’s earlier losses to Yale and Brown.
Complementing Barnes and Taylor will be sophomore Cody Toppert and freshman standouts Collins and David Lisle. Toppert, a 6-4 swingman, is averaging 10.6 ppg, but has scored only 45 points in his past seven games. However, Donahue deflected responsibility for the slump away from Toppert, saying, “if the other guys keep playing better and force other teams to collapse on them, then Cody will get his open shots and knock them down.”
One of the biggest surprises for the Red has been the tandem of Collins and Lisle. Collins can play anywhere on the floor and averages 8 ppg, 5.1 rpg, and 1.7 apg. He has already been named Ivy Rookie of the Week six times, including last weekend when he averaged 7.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 4.0 apg. Against the Green he pulled down 14 rebounds. His success on the boards has helped the Red outrebound seven of its last nine opponents.
Surprisingly, Collins prefers to play outside, saying, “I feel most comfortable on the perimeter shooting the three or taking a few dribbles and taking a pull up jumper. But, I feel good enough to go down low and mix it up a bit and get some rebounds.”
Collins’ stranglehold on the Ivy Rookie award might be threatened by the emergence of Lisle, a 6-4 guard who averaged 10.5 ppg and 6.0 rpg against Dartmouth and Harvard. His steady play and diligence in practice has paid dividends, earning him starts in the last four games.
“David just does a lot of little things that help you win. He’s very physical, strong as a rebounder. But, he’s good with the ball too and can do some things on the low post that helps us score points. He really has a good basketball IQ and always competes,” commented Donahue.
Even if Lisle and the rest of the Red play to the best of their ability this weekend it would be quite an accomplishment to steal a road victory against either Yale or Brown. Nonetheless, the team believes it mid-season woes are over and that it will end the weekend situated in the upper-half of the Ivy League.
Moreover, the Red sees this weekend’s road trip as more than just two games, but also as a chance to serve notice to the rest of the Ivy League that Cornell is a team to be reckoned with.
“We’re looking to come out and play well this weekend, and to finish the season off strong. We’ve got pretty much the whole team coming back next year, and we can set it up now for the future and let everybody know we are a team to look out for, ready to take a spot in the top four,” said Barnes.
Archived article by Mark Fetzko