Pop quiz: Other than Penn and Princeton, what was the last Ivy League basketball team to win an outright league championship? The answer: Cornell, in the 1987-88 season. Since then, the Quakers and the Tigers have dominated the conference, winning or sharing every title. Only in 2001-02, when Yale shared the top spot with the perennial contenders, has another school managed to crack the top of the Ivies.
This weekend, the Red hopes to take one more step toward breaking through the reign of Princeton and Penn when it battles the two schools today and tomorrow at Newman Arena. The action opens up against the Tigers tonight at 8:00 p.m.
In contrast with previous years, Cornell (10-9) enters the weekend with a serious shot at an Ivy title. The team leads the conference with a 5-1 record, just ahead of second-place Princeton, which stands at 4-1 in league play.
The Tigers play a game that centers around time of possession and slowing the game down to their speed.
“Princeton’s system is very structured, four out and one in, trying to really execute backdoor lay-ups and easy shots. They do a good job of spreading you out,” noted Donahue. “They’re trying to run the clock and put the play at the pace they want.”
The Tigers’ game is characterized by a complex scheme, excellent halfcourt play, and hitting high percentage shots. It often leads to lower scoring, defense-minded games.
“We have to make sure we stay on our toes with Princeton,” said senior captain Ka’Ron Barnes.
Big man Judson Wallace heads up the Tigers’ squad with 12.4 ppg and 5.6 rpg, and point guard Ed Persia comes in next with 9.7 ppg and a team-high 3.1 assists per game. Fellow guard Will Venable, averaging 8.2 ppg with 3.0 assists and 4.8 rebounds (both good for second on the team), is well-rounded complement to Princeton’s leaders.
The Tigers also managed a winning non-conference record, although against a decidedly weaker slate, with losses against Oklahoma, Minnesota, and No. 1 Duke. Princeton’s game against the Blue Devils was perhaps the highlight of its season so far, when the Tigers trailed by as little as six in the second half. Eventually, Duke won the game, 69-51, but Princeton’s effort against a much more talented team is worthy of note.
The Quakers faced a tough non-conference schedule and came away with a winning record. Early in the season the team lost close games to No. 17 Wisconsin, Michigan State, and undefeated No. 3 St. Joseph’s. It can count among its victories contests against a tough Manhattan team, Patriot League leading Lafayette, and Princeton.
An 0-2 opening to the Ivy season put Penn in its current hole, but with so many tough games behind it and a three-game conference winning streak, the Quakers are looking to get themselves back into the Ivy race in a hurry.
Leading the way for the team is senior guard Jeff Schiffner. Schiffner tops Penn in scoring, with 14.5 ppg and is second on the team in assists with 3.1 per game. Right behind him, junior guard Tim Begley ranks second on the team in scoring with 13.1 ppg. Perhaps Penn’s best all-around player, Begley also averages 3.9 assists, best on the team, and 4.7 rebounds per game.
Senior center Adam Chubb rounds out the Quakers’ top three, averaging 10.6 ppg, a team leading 6.9 rpg, and 17 blocks on the season.
Cornell head coach Steve Donahue, who worked as an assistant coach at Penn for 10 years, noted that Penn’s offensive system is designed to be aggressive and create points.
“Penn will spread the floor and get a lot of points from the three-point line, but playing at a much faster pace [than Princeton],” said Donahue.
With the weekend’s games, Cornell has the chance to cement its first place standing in the Ivy League and make itself the team to beat for the stretch run of the season. To get through Penn and Princeton, though, the Red will very likely have to use the same strategy with which the Quakers vanquished the Tigers, and beat the teams at their own games.
“You almost have got to anticipate the game is going to be played at their pace,” said Donahue.
“We’re coming into this game with the understanding that this is going to be a halfcourt war,” said junior captain Eric Taylor.
In Princeton and Penn, the Red face two teams with widely varying styles. Without question, though, both teams will be looking to limit Cornell’s strength, its high-speed floor game. So it follows that the team’s response to this tactic will likely define how well it does over the weekend.
“We love to push it in transition, and unfortunately, everybody knows that,” said Taylor. “What’s going to be important is our halfcourt offense. We’ve been working on that in practice, so I think that’s going to be a key for us. We should be able to run some good offense that way.”
If the Red wants to succeed this weekend, it will need to play the halfcourt better than it did last Saturday.
The Red comes into the game off a 67-48 loss to Yale in which the Bulldogs forced Cornell into playing a halfcourt game. While the Red won the battle of the boards, pulling town 10 more balls off the glass than Yale, the Red shot a miserable 28 percent from the field, to seal its fate.
But the team should match up well against its opponents this weekend. Cornell has greater size in its frontcourt and the two leading scorers in the Ivy League in Barnes and junior Cody Toppert. Additionally, the Red will look to take advantage of its experience.
“I look out on the floor and we have mostly veterans, and Penn and Princeton both play at least three freshmen for significant minutes. And I think that’s to our advantage,” said Donahue. “They’ve been looking forward to this game. This isn’t something that surprises us. We were anticipating this happening. This week, we wanted to be in first place.”
Indeed, after losing seasons for as long as they can remember, the players are excited for the test.
“This is our time to let people know we’re for real,” said Barnes. “It’s really going to mean something if we beat these guys.”
“Obviously this is where we want to be,” said the big man. “Coming in, we felt like we should be at this point at this time. We have some good players, we had some of the easier teams at the beginning of the schedule, and now, last weekend and this weekend, we’re playing some of the tough teams.”
“It’s exciting, all the hard work we put in is finally paying off,” said Barnes.
The games tip off tonight and tomorrow at 8:00 p.m. As always, student admission for the event is free. The team is hoping the school will come out to support it.
“It’s going to be real exciting this weekend,” said Taylor “We’re going to have an atmosphere that we haven’t seen ourselves and that I don’t think Ithaca has seen in years. It should be a lot of fun and hopefully we’ll come out with two wins.”
If the numbers and the stature of the teams have anything to do with it, the contests should be well worth watching. And they might very well mean a lot in the end.
Said Barnes. “If we get these wins, it would mean a lot for the program, mean a lot for the community.”
Archived article by Matt James