With a father who has made a career out of playing and coaching in the NBA, basketball has been such a constant in freshman Ryan Wittman’s life that he can’t even remember the first time he touched a ball — although he hazards a guess that he was handling the rock before he took his first step.
For classmate Louis Dale, the beginning of his basketball career is a little clearer.
“I remember taking my first shot in an organized basketball game. I didn’t make it though. It rimmed out,” Dale said.
Dale’s misstep as a green eight-year-old is a distant memory, however, as he and Wittman have been firing on all cylinders in their first collegiate campaign at Cornell. In the first eight weeks of the 2006-07 season, the two rookies have combined to win seven Ivy League Rookie of the Week awards. The only week the honor left Ithaca was while the Red was off due to final exams.
“Everyone has responsibilities, and theirs are obviously scoring the basketball and making other people better,” said head coach Steve Donahue.
The freshman duo — who lead the Red in scoring so far this season — saw their responsibilities on the court expand after sophomore Adam Gore, the 2005-06 Ivy League Rookie of the Year, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Red’s first game of the season. Without the team’s leading scorer from a year ago, Cornell was left looking for a go-to player.
“When Adam got hurt in the first game, everybody had to step and contribute a little bit more,” Wittman said. “I’ve just been coming in [and] hitting open shots. Louis has been doing a great job of driving and kicking it out.”
Wittman started the season with three consecutive Rookie of the Week honors, a streak matched by Dale beginning the week of Dec. 18 after the point guard scored a career-high 23 points in a 70-66 loss to Bucknell (8-8, 2-1), the defending Patriot League champion, on Dec. 16. Dale took home his second honor the next week after averaging 12.0 points in 17.0 minutes in losses to two other defending conference champions — a 78-75 loss to Albany (11-7, 4-2 America East) on Dec. 22 and a 65-50 loss to Iowa (10-8, 2-2 Big Ten) on Dec. 30. After helping the Red (8-8, 1-1 Ivy) even its non-league record with wins against Colgate (6-11, 1-3 Patriot), Ithaca College (7-6, 2-1 Empire 8) and NJIT (3-15), Dale was recognized for the third consecutive week.
“I think I just had a lot more confidence,” Dale said. “[I am] just used to playing with these guys now and used to playing college basketball, and I got more confident with more games.”
Following the first weekend of league action, in which the Red dropped a 74-56 decision to Penn (9-6, 2-0) last Friday but rebounded to take a 55-35 win from Princeton (9-6, 0-2) on Saturday, Wittman reclaimed the weekly crown after leading Cornell in scoring both nights. The teammates insist they are not concerned with individual honors, but instead focus on achieving the goals of the team.
“Our main goal is to win the Ivy League, so we’re not really getting too caught up in all that stuff,” Wittman said.
Wittman leads the Red with a 15.9 points per game mark, and is shooting over 45 percent from the field as well as beyond the arc. Dale is right behind his classmate, averaging 12.8 points per game, and leads the squad with 64 assists and 54 steals on the season. Donahue credits the success of his rookies with a more aggressive playing style that has evolved as they adjust to the college game.
“I didn’t want to add pressure to their transition to the college game,” Donahue said. “I’ve subtly told them throughout the year when I see something on the floor whether it’s in practice or a game, ‘You know, you passed that one up there, that’s your shot, you’ve got to take that.’”
Transfer joins Red
Sophomore Jeff Foote, a 7-0 center and a native of Lockwood, N.Y., has joined the men’s basketball team after transferring to Cornell from St. Bonaventure. Due to NCAA regulations, he will not be eligible to play until the end of the 2007 fall semester.
“He’s a local kid. … He came to our camps as a grade school kid,” Donahue said. “He’s a great young man, his work ethic is great and he’s seven feet tall.”
Foote joined the Bonnies as a walk-on and redshirted his freshman season. He averaged 15 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks per game as a senior at Spencer-Van Etten High School.