February 15, 2008

M. Cagers Aim To Stay Perfect In League Play

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With every passing weekend, it seems the men’s basketball team has the chance to do something it hasn’t done since the standalone seasons of 1988 and 1967 — win the Ivy League crown. This weekend, though, the Red has the chance to do something it hasn’t done since … 2007 — win 16 games in a season.
With wins this weekend over Harvard (6-16, 1-5 Ivy) and Dartmouth (8-12, 1-5), Cornell (14-5, 6-0) would match its win total from last season with six games still left to be played.

[img_assist|nid=27821|title=Air Wittman|desc=Sophomore Ryan Wittman (20) jumps to take a shot over a Princeton defender last Friday. Wittman scored a game-high 20 points.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Standing in the way are two squads that split a home-and-home series with each other to open the Ivy season but have since fallen on hard times. Harvard has lost five straight games by spreads ranging from 13 to 20, while Dartmouth has lost four in a row — its last two by 39 and 26, respectively.
Tonight, the Red travels to Cambridge, Mass., to face a balanced Harvard squad that likes to spread the floor and slice up defenses with dribble penetration.
“They run a lot of ball screens up top to generate most things,” said sophomore guard Ryan Wittman. “I think we’re going to stick with our main defensive principles. … We’ll just try to make the offense uncomfortable.”
Making the Crimson’s offense uncomfortable means switching effectively on defense when Harvard’s backcourt duo of Jeremy Fin and Drew Housman try to create off of screens.
“We have a lot of guys who are very versatile and can guard at different positions,” Wittman said. “I think that’s a benefit for us defensively and we’ve been utilizing that lately. If we get in trouble, we can just switch it.”
Switching effectively was a big key to stemming a Princeton run last Friday, and it’s something the players know they must continue to execute in order to succeed. Fin paces Harvard in scoring at 12.3 points per game, assists with 3.4 per contest and steals with 39 on the season. His assist numbers are good for fourth in the Ivy League and his steals total makes him the second-best thief in the conference.
“He likes to drive the ball a lot, so our post guys are going to have to know where he is on the floor and be in the help position,” Wittman said.
Housman, as the Crimson’s other backcourt double-digit threat, also likes to draw defenders to him in the paint, and then kick it out.
“Housman can drive, penetrate and get into the lane,” said sophomore forward Alex Tyler.
This system works well for Harvard because instead of relying on a dominant post presence, it looks to versatile big men who can rotate out and shoot it from distance — particularly Brad Unger.
“Unger can step out and shoot a 3 if he’s left open, so we have to make sure to not leave him alone,” Tyler said.
With Harvard returning essentially the exact same team that swept Cornell in the Ivy season last year, Tyler said that the squad has learned a valuable lesson from those games.
“It taught us that we have to be prepared on the road,” he said. “You can’t just go into a road weekend even if it’s the bottom two teams in the league and expect it to be an easy game.”
The Red also learned a lesson from its games against Penn and Princeton last weekend. Despite winning both contests by double digits, Cornell had to dig itself out of first-half deficits to claim victory.
“I think [we have to come out] with energy and play defense right away,” Wittman said. “In the Princeton and Penn games, they came out with a lot of energy and teams are going to do that to us. We have to match that energy and exceed it. In the Penn and Princeton games our defense improved as the game went on. I think we realized that from the opening tip we have to come out and play defense that way.”
Playing tough defense will be especially important tomorrow night against Dartmouth’s Alex Barnett. Barnett is atop the Ivy League scoring list along with Brown’s Mark McAndrew at 16.5 points per game, and alone as the conference’s most prolific rebounder, averaging 6.9 per contest.
Unlike Harvard, where the scoring is distributed, Dartmouth relies on Barnett to be its leading scorer. In 10 of its last 11 games and 14-of-20 overall, Barnett has led his squad in scoring. Just to be well rounded, he also leads the Green in blocks and is second in steals and assists. He’s also happens to be Dartmouth’s most efficient 3-point shooter at 40 percent.
“He’s a great player. He can do everything,” Tyler said.
“Like with all great players, it’s going to take a team defensive effort,” Wittman said. “It’s not going to be one guy. Everybody is going to have to be aware of what he is doing on the court.”
Staying with the player mantra of learning lessons and getting better every week, Tyler pointed out another way the team can build off its wins last weekend. It is a lesson that will be needed against Dartmouth.
“We want to limit penetration,” he said. “We want to make them work to get the ball in the low post area and get the ball close to the basket. Especially against Penn, they got it a little bit too close to the basket several times. For the post guys, we have to work on getting good position, and the guards have to work on challenging the [opposing] guards and staying in front of them.”
Wins over both Harvard and Dartmouth would mean Cornell has beaten each Ivy team at least once. Wittman insisted, though, that this thought has no bearing on this weekend.
“We just have to take it one game at a time,” he said. “If you start thinking about it like we’ve beaten every team, then we have to play them again and we’re going to get beat by them. If we don’t improve each week as a basketball team, we will lose games.”