The story about Cornell’s centers begins and ends with one man in 2003-04: junior captain Eric Taylor.
After serving as the team’s first-ever sophomore captain last season, he returns this year in the same role to help lead the team on its quest for its first Ivy title in 15 years.
While Taylor played many of his minutes last year as the lone big man on the floor for the Red, this year, he should have some help in the post, and that help looks to be the biggest difference for the Red this season.
“It’s all relative,” said head coach Steve Donahue. “We were very undersized and outweighed, and now we’re not anymore.”
Junior forward Gabe Stephenson, who is 6-8, will add height to the starting lineup, and three tall freshmen should contribute off the bench, including rookie forward/center Andrew Naeve.
But don’t count on the Red to rely on height alone for improvement; the team has spent its time in the off-season working to improve its strength, speed, and skill.
“I think we’re better in all aspects of the game,” said Taylor. “If you look at the test results we’re faster, stronger.”
Last year, Taylor engineered a breakout season, leading the Ivies in rebounding (7.0 rpg) and field goal percentage (.558), and ranking second on the team in scoring (12.7 ppg) and assists (2.3 apg).
As his numbers indicate, Taylor has established himself as one of the top post players in the Ivies. He can play with his back to the basket or facing up and shooting. A tenacious rebounder, he also has solid passing skills for distributing the ball when necessary. These skills mark him as a key player in the Red’s continued improvement.
This year, he and the team returns with another year under their belts. Each member of the starting lineup has had at least 20 starts in the last three seasons, and Taylor has started since the end of his freshman year.
“We’re going to reap the benefits of all their experience,” said Donahue.
With that experience, Donahue will look to turn up the intensity on the Red’s opponents. As was evidenced in the Red’s Australia trip, where the team scored more than 100 points per game (with a 24 second shot clock) in each contest, Cornell will hit the floor with a much more wide-open style this season.
“We haven’t played how I wanted to play until this season,” noted Donahue, citing inexperienced players and the wrong personnel as the main reasons for a slower pace of play.
“Ideally, I play aggressively,” said Donahue. “We want to play up-tempo on both sides of the ball.”
“It allows the big guys to run the floor,” explained Stephenson.
And that leads to easy baskets for the big guys on offense, and more time to set up defensively and gain position for rebounds.
That said, don’t look for the team to turn one dimensional any time soon.
“We’re going to have to have a solid half-court offense,” noted Taylor.
That will keep teams honest on defense.
Off the bench, the Red will see a notable contribution from freshman Naeve. Naeve brings a solid defensive presence to the game, with the ability to pick up rebounds on offense and defense and block shots.
6-10 junior Chris Vandenberg might also have a chance to play later in the season. Vandenberg, who has missed significant time due to injuries since his freshman year, brings a huge presence inside both offensively and defensively, but will spend much of the season recovering from knee surgery.
Any contribution he can give will be considered a bonus, so the role of backing up Taylor falls to the freshman, and Naeve looks up to the task in the early going.
“Andrew played real well in the scrimmage last Saturday,” observed Taylor.
The Red hopes it is a marker of things to come.
“They’re coming around,” said Taylor about the team’s rookie big men.
The team will look to them for help off the bench with the team’s biggest area of concern going into the season.
“Defense and rebounding are the biggest question marks,” said Taylor about the team coming into the season.
Taylor is confident in the starting lineup.
“I think we’re both bangers,” said Taylor about he and Stephenson. “It’s going to be a physical style inside.”
Archived article by Matt James