February 29, 2008

M. Cagers Play for Title

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For Three Dog Night, two was the loneliest number since the number one. For the men’s basketball team, no number could be more magical than the number two. It’s the number of combined Cornell wins and Brown losses needed for the Red to clinch its first Ivy League championship since before many Cornellians were born — 1988.
Two weekend wins against Dartmouth and Harvard, one win and a Brown loss, or two Brown losses. That’s all it would take for years of preparation, practice and recruiting to finally pay off in the form of an Ivy title.
“To look at the finish line is hard to do,” said men’s head coach Steve Donahue, who, eight years ago, inherited a team that had only won three Ivy games the previous year.
“I’ve forced and trained myself to focus on each game and figure out how to get better every possession.”
In Donahue’s first three years, he only squeezed three, two and then four wins out of his squad. But Athletic Director Andy Noel stood by him, and now steady improvement has brought the Red (17-5, 10-0 Ivy) within a hairs’ width of an Ancient Eight title.
[img_assist|nid=28378|title=Dribble drive|desc=Men’s basketball junior Adam Gore (23) will try to continue his strong performances against Dartmouth and Harvard this weekend.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
But in true Donahue fashion, his squad will have its focus exclusively on Dartmouth (record) and Harvard (record) this weekend. Although the Red beat both squads in a road swing through Cambridge, Mass., and Hanover, N.H., two weekends ago, it was arguably Cornell’s worst weekend of the Ivy season.
“I don’t think we defended all that great, and I don’t think we took care of the ball,” Donahue said. “I think we didn’t do a good job all weekend, particularly in both first halves, and I think that’s why we had close games.”
Cornell pulled a 72-71 win out at Harvard much the same way a magician would pull a rabbit out of a hat — unexpectedly. It took six points from sophomore Alex Tyler in the last 25 seconds to cap the 11-point comeback. Against Dartmouth the next night, Cornell was sloppy with the ball and only pulled away in the final few minutes for the 73-63 win.
“If you give a team easy baskets early on, they start feeling good. I thought both teams, Harvard and Dartmouth, played off of those easy buckets and thought, ‘We’re in the game, now let’s go play.’”
For Cornell to be successful against Dartmouth Friday night, ball control will be as important as ever. The Red had nine first-half turnovers that led to 14 Green points. So, despite shooting a blistering 68 percent in that first half, Cornell only led by one.
“There’s no reason we should have a lot of turnovers because neither [Dartmouth or Harvard] really presses,” Donahue said. “It’s just lack of concentration sometimes. I think we did a real good job last week [of not turning the ball over] … and its going to be a key again.”
The Red will see some different offensive looks from Dartmouth this weekend. The Green’s leading scorer and rebounder, Alex Barnett, sat out the Green’s last contest with the Red due to injury. He should be back in the lineup tonight.
“[Dartmouth will be looking] for him more, so it’s little different,” Donahue said. “I thought they really moved the ball against us up there. You don’t see as much ball movement [when Barnett plays] because they like to get him the ball in certain spots.”
What Donahue kept returning to, however, was Dartmouth’s quickness across the board, meaning the Red has to not play over-aggressive defense.
“They do a very good job in the half court of moving the ball from side-to-side with a lot of smaller, quicker guys,” Donahue said. “So you can get caught looking at the ball. … I think keeping them in front and limiting their penetration is key. Once they penetrate they’re hard to guard. They start sharing the ball and getting in the gaps and start kicking it out. You have to keep them out of the lane for the most part.”
Similar to Dartmouth, Harvard boasts an established backcourt capable of penetrating and getting into the lane. Sophomore Jeremy Lin, coming off a Ivy League Player of the Week performance last weekend, has joined senior Drew Housman to create one of the most potent tandems in the league.
“Housman has always given us fits,” Donahue said. “I think he does a great job of penetrating and creating fouls for a guy his size. He throws his body in there and knows how to get contact so you have to be intelligent about how you guard him. Lin just has a nice, quick first step and he shoots it fairly well. I think he’s coming into his own as a confident player. His quickness and ability to go by you makes him difficult to guard. I think any time you get two good guards like that it has to be a team effort because guys have to rotate and be ready.”
But again, Cornell cannot be too overaggressive defensively. Since Harvard is a team that relies on ball movement, helping on screens can have a detrimental effect.
“I think Harvard does a good job in general of sharing the basketball so you can’t over help,” Donahue said. “They’ll find guys. Some teams you can get away with really helping out on one guy. Harvard’s isn’t team that you can afford to do that against.”
And despite sitting in the basement of the Ivy standings, Harvard is coming off wins last weekend against Penn and Princeton. Donahue pointed out that the Crimson could have easily won its first matchups with both Penn and Princeton — not to mention its game against Cornell.
“There are five, six, or seven guys that they play that are all good Ivy League players,” Donahue said. “They all play tough and share the ball. It doesn’t surprise me that they did well at all.”