While the Cornell and Hartford men’s basketball teams will meet each other for just the third time ever tonight, their respective coaches have already spent hours scouting each other on the hardcourt.
Years ago, when Cornell head coach Steve Donahue was an assistant at Penn under Fran Dunphy and Hartford head coach Dan Leibovitz was an assistant at Temple for John Chaney, the two friends used to meet in The Palestra to play pick-up games with other coaches in the area.
“If Cornell plays anything like the way Steve played, they will be extremely well-conditioned, scrappy, competitive and intelligent,” Leibovitz said.
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Donahue also has clear memories of those games.
“Dan was a very good player,” he said. “Much better than myself.”
While Donahue may defer to Leibovitz on the court, Hartford’s first-year coach still looks to his Cornell counterpart for tips when working from the sidelines.
“I think he’s a super coach,” Leibovitz said of Donahue. “He’s a great person to call and get some advice from.”
Whatever pointers Donahue may have shared paid off recently, as Leibovitz earned his first career win against Dartmouth, coaching the Hawks to a 60-50 decision over the Green this past Saturday. For the first time this season, Hartford (1-3) will see how having momentum on its side helps on-court execution, while Cornell (3-2) is looking to bounce back from a heartbreaking, 57-56, loss to Binghamton last Friday.
“Everyone feels a little bit better about themselves coming off a win, but we understand this is a great challenge,” Leibovitz said. “I tell them every great challenge also has great opportunity.”
The Hawks stand out among the Red’s opponents for their reliance on zone defense. Donahue expects any and all variations, including the traditional 2-3 and 3-2 setups as well as a matchup zone and a triangle-and-two defensive scheme. Although Northwestern is the only team Cornell has faced this season that relied predominantly on zone defense, Donahue is confident in his team’s ability to handle different looks tonight.
“I feel we’re a pretty good team in terms of understanding you’ve got to move the ball properly and you’ve got to be spaced out properly,” Donahue said. “It’s hard to simulate in practice so you try to do your best, but I feel our guys are pretty good players in terms of the skills needed.”
Leading the attack for Cornell will be rookie Ryan Wittman, who was just named the Ivy League Rookie of the Week for the second consecutive week. Wittman is averaging 15.6 points per game on the season, but has yet to break out for more than 20 points in a game — a feat four of his teammates have achieved. Sophomore Brian Kreefer has topped 20 points twice this season, and is averaging 14.0 points on the year. Freshman point guard Louis Dale has also made an easy transition to the college game, scoring 12.6 points per game.
When the Red is defending, it will face a balanced attack from the Hawks. Senior forward Bo Taylor has paced Hartford with 12.3 points and 5.0 boards per contest, while freshman guard Joe Zeglinski has posted 10.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. Senior forward Alex Zimnickas gives the Hawks a triple threat with 11.8 points per game.
“They play a nice passing game — they move the ball and they really share it,” Donahue said. “All five guys like to shoot it from the 3 and yet they spread you out and they can still post up.”
Donahue and the Red will look to remain perfect at home this season against, while Leibovitz will be looking to double his win total as a head coach. Leibovitz took the reins at Hartford after 10 years at Temple. During his tenure there, he helped Chaney coach the Owls to 10 postseason appearances, as well as two trips to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
“I’m really glad [Leibovitz] got the chance that he’s got,” Donahue said. “It’s well-deserved and his kids are playing hard. They’ve got a good team and we’ll have to play well to win.”