February 1, 2008

Four Enlightening Predictions on Cornell Sports

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Often, sports pundits will make bold predictions, if for nothing else than to show how good they are at their jobs, establish their credibility and encourage public discussion.
This is one of those columns. I’m a huge fan of encouraging public discourse, and though I’m not much of a pundit and I’ve never intended to prove myself through this column, I definitely have enough credibility to start some dialogue about Cornell’s sports. For example, can you name the co-captains of softball?
Seniors Sam Hare and Liz Larkin.
Boom. Credibility.
Now for four BOLD Cornell sports possibilities:
Notice how I used the word possibilities instead of predictions. This way, I can make seemingly wild claims and take credit when any of them come true, while covering myself when any of them fall short.
1. Men’s Basketball will win the Ivy title.
No, this is NOT a given. Preseason polls unanimously listed the Red as the league favorite and Cornell is currently the Ancient Eight’s only undefeated team.
However, if you look at the Ivy standings, you’ll see two teams, Penn and Princeton, haven’t played a single league game. That’s worth noting because those are the ONLY schools to have won the Ivy League in the last 20 years. Going back even farther, to 1969-70, those two have been the conference champions in all but two years. That’s the same two teams as conference champions for ALMOST FORTY SEASONS.
The last non-P/P team to win? That was Cornell, in 1987-88.
2. Junior Jeomi Maduka will be Ivy Player of the Year & women’s basketball will win the Ancient Eight.
I bet you didn’t see that first part coming. Regardless, it is a very real possibility for a few reasons, a number of which are based in actual facts and one of which is not. First, the non-factual: I believe Jeomi is Cornell’s best athlete. Sorry everyone else.
Now, for the factual: through a dozen or so non-conference games and two league games, Maduka is third in the conference in points, first in rebounds, third in field-goal percentage, fifth in free-throw percentage, first in steals and defensive rebounds. She also leads the Red in points, rebounds and steals, and is third in assists and minutes. Yes, that’s THIRD in minutes (she plays two sports in one season, give her a break). When Cornell wins the Ivy title it will undoubtedly be because of a massive contribution from Maduka.
As for Cornell’s title shot, the team has quality and depth at every position (… and it has Jeomi). It can play big or small lineup. It can shoot, post-up or drive to the hoop. In fact, this is the highest scoring team in the Ivy League (64.9 per game). Defense has historically been this team’s weakness, but it currently has the league’s second-best defensive record (61.9 points per game). And it leads the Ivy League in rebounding margin. In other words, this team is for real. And when it wins, so will Jeomi.
3. Men’s Hockey will win the Ivy title … AND finish second in the ECAC regular season.
Cornell is currently second to Princeton in the Ivy standings by one point, and ahead of Harvard by two points. Harvard and Princeton have two games in hand however, so this feat is harder than it sounds. Can you believe we might not win the Ivy League in MEN’S HOCKEY!? For the SECOND STRAIGHT year? I swear, if Harvard wins again … somewhere, Director of Athletics Andy Noel is cringing.
Anyway, when Cornell wins the Ivy League, it’ll likely be in second in the ECAC, since the top-half of the standings has four Ivy teams trailing the seemingly mighty Clarkson. I’ll give Clarkson the title. … Go ahead, prove me wrong, men’s hockey.
4. Kevin Boothe ’06 will lead the Giants to a Super Bowl victory.
OK, that’s a trick prediction: one offensive lineman can’t lead a team to victory. Regardless, I’m one of those people who believe the Giants CAN beat the Patriots, and won’t be surprised to see it happen. … CAN? “Won’t be surprised?” I’m purposely hedging, so let me explain by matching up the teams on (defense and offense) rushing games, passing games, and special teams.
Special Teams: “Who cares about special teams?”
Forget the order I just listed above, special teams goes first because if you look carefully at the tape of Lawrence Tynes’ game-winning overtime field goal in the NFC championship game, New York offensive lineman No. 77 Kevin Boothe ’06 is blocking on the left side of the line.
Advantage: Giants.
Seriously though, Tynes, or New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski? Gostkowski has far worse numbers than Tynes, and in basically every category. What’s more, the Giants have Jeff Feagles, one of the world’s best directional punters (fourth in the net yards and second in average return on kicks). The Patriots? They have Chris Hanson, the fourth brother from Slap Shot. Since field position is always critical, this unit could have a big impact on the game.
Rushing Games: “I smell fear.”
The Patriots’ run defense numbers are staggering: they were No. 26 in rushing yards allowed per game. This is even more incredible when you consider they played most of the regular season AHEAD of teams, which means other teams were actually trying to pass. Maybe the Pats just gave up the run because they knew they were ahead by so much that time was on their side? The fact that they faced the fewest rushing attempts in the NFL suggests that is not the case … or maybe the smaller sample size inflates the average? I honestly don’t know the answer, but when I also see the Patriots ranked No. 10 out of 12 teams during the playoffs in yards per carry allowed, it makes me wonder how good the Pats really are at stopping the run. Interestingly, though, the Patriots haven’t allowed a touchdown on the ground during the playoffs.
Although I have numbers to prove it, I think little more needs to be said about the Giants’ running attack than the word “excellent,” especially when you consider they have run more than any other team in football during the post-season (92 times in three games!). The Pats could not hold Jacobs the last time the teams met (4.5 yards per carry) … and they didn’t even get to see him in tandem with (the next Tiki Barber?) Ahmad Bradshaw.
The Giants were able to shut down Laurence Maroney in their last meeting, holding him to 2.4 yards per carry on 19 carries, and have proven all year they can stop the run (third in the playoffs in yards per attempt of teams that have face 50-plus carries, top-10 during the regular season in yards per attempt and yards per game allowed). So, although the Patriots are coming into the game averaging 4.9 yards per carry, second in the playoffs, I trust the smaller sample of data more this time.
Passing Games: “It’s like they’re playing Madden … but in real life.”
New England has the league’s greatest passing attack and scoring offense ever. Statistically. Brady ripped apart the Giants’ secondary for 8.5 yards per attempt in the teams’ last meeting. Randy Moss burned the Giants with speed, and Wes Welker showed that he’s one of the league’s top possession receivers right now.
That Giants’ secondary unit was largely banged up, missing physical corner Sam Madison (could he be the one to bump Randy Moss off his game, as we’ve seen physical corners like Baltimore’s Chris McAlister do this season?) and a number of other key starters. Moreover, New York leads all teams with 5.86 passing yards per attempt on defense during the playoffs. In other words, they have the best pass defense in the playoffs, having faced Green Bay and Dallas — who had the second- and third-most yards per game and ranked No. 4 and No. 2 in points per game during the regular season — and faced more attempts than any other team in the post-season (tied with San Diego at 110).
New York was able to stop Green Bay by dropping more players into coverage and blitzing less often, relying on the front-4 to do the damage. I’ve haven’t seen the Giants’ front-4 stopped all season, and I won’t expect the Pats to suddenly be able to do this as well. I also expect the Giants to continue scoring, the way it did the last time these two took the field. But can New York continue to get season-best production out of its receivers and Eli Manning?
This is New England … and in case you haven’t noticed, nobody has outscored New England. Not one team. Can the Giants outscore the Patriots? It’s possible, and for three quarters in Week 17, that was the case. Will it happen again? I’m going to say yes because I would love to see it happen. And because Kevin Boothe is on the Giants.