For the first 91 games of his college basketball career, Cody Toppert was a center of attention. A three-year starter who had never missed a game, Cornell’s senior guard was about as much of a constant as there is these days in Division I hoops.
But even after a headline-grabbing 23-point, seven-assist performance against No. 7 Syracuse on Dec. 21 that earned him Ivy League Player of the Week recognition, it was becoming clear that Toppert’s stellar performance was not going to be enough to get the Red over the considerable hump that it seems to face every season around that time of the year.
So after Cornell’s disappointing 70-63 home loss to St. Francis (N.Y.) on Dec. 28, head coach Steve Donahue made an unorthodox move — he decided the Red’s 13th all-time leading scorer had started his last game.
“After that game against St. Francis of New York, I just saw the personality of a team and the way we were playing in particular that wasn’t good,” Donahue explained. “We had a three-hour meeting and we all just discussed where we are now and where we need to be. One of the things that came across was that there was just a drop off of our toughness when we came off the bench, just because we’re so young. So I thought, let’s try to be more tough off the bench.”
So Toppert, the best pure shooter on the team, became the team’s first option in reserve beginning four days later at Army.
The results for both the player and the team were immediate. Toppert scored 12 points in 26 minutes off the bench. More notably, 10 players logged at least eight minutes for the Red, with all but three of them getting into the points column. And Cornell out-hustled the Black Knights all game long. Cornell forced 20 turnovers with a newly unveiled pressure defense that utilized much of Toppert’s intensity off the bench.
Freshman guard Jason Canady made his first career start in place of Toppert that afternoon, but a couple of relative veterans would eventually step up in a unique guard-by-committee rotation that resulted from the lineup change.
Sophomore Graham Dow, who had been practically forgotten earlier in the season, saw his minutes increase drastically, from virtually none against Syracuse to 14 at Army, then 20 at Lehigh two days later. His output improved almost immediately, as he quickly made a habit of leading the team in steals game after game.
“I like to think that I can bring a spark off the bench, be able to come in there and give us some defense and some leadership and some scoring when I need to, but get everyone involved,” he said.
Junior David Lisle, a solid contributor his freshman year who saw his place in the rotation recede last year, returned to the starting lineup for the first time since Feb. 28, 2004, logging 32 minutes on Jan. 15 at Columbia. This past weekend against the Lions at Newman Arena, Lisle helped spark a monstrous first half for Cornell, which saw the Red take a 39-18 lead into the break.
Despite the increased minutes, though, Lisle won’t change his approach. “I’m just going to go out and do whatever I possibly can for the team, diving on loose balls, hustle plays are the kind of stuff I can bring to the team,” he said. “If Coach thinks I can contribute coming off the bench, that’s what I’ll do, and if he thinks I can contribute starting, that’s what I’ll do too.”
As for Toppert, the change from starter to reserve has been an adjustment, but one he has been whole-heartedly willing to accept.
“It’s just whatever I can do to help the team, that’s all I’m trying to do, trying to win,” he said. “Whether I come off the bench, getting rebounds, assists, steals, make the shot, I’ll do whatever I have to do or I’m asked to do.”
His attitude has not gone unnoticed by his teammates.
“Cody’s been very positive,” Dow said. “He’s a senior, so he knows how things go on the team, and if it’s not going well for him, he’s going to do his best to make the team win. He hasn’t complained, he hasn’t said anything.”
For Donahue, shifting Toppert to the bench provides the Red a very important advantage as the Ivy League season progresses — the ability to be able to rely on the whole team rather than one or two players.
“The difference I can see between this year’s team and the last couple of years is now we’re going 10-deep legitimately,” Donahue said. “That’s something we’ve tried to do the last couple of years, and with back-to-back games, it’s going to help us greatly.”
Cornell begins the long haul of league games on back-to-back days this weekend when it plays host to Harvard and Dartmouth at Newman Arena. The Red hopes to begin to reap the greatest benefits of this experiment with this set.
“Any time you play on back-to-back nights, it’s a difficult thing when you have five guys playing 30, 35 minutes a game,” Toppert said. “Spreading out the minutes is going to help guys rest their legs, it’s just so you don’t lose anything when you come off the bench with somebody, you stay strong on the floor and then you’re going to have stronger legs at the end of the game.”
Archived article by Owen Bochner
Sun Sports Editor