March 12, 2008

Tough Defensive Mentality Emerges From Skid

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They say hindsight is 20/20, but the way the men’s basketball team talks, you might think hindsight has grabbed a pair of binoculars and is seeing with 20/10 vision.
To a man, each player on this Cornell basketball squad seems to look back and point to the same stretch of the season that created a new mentality — a mentality that allowed the team to sweep the Ivy League.
With microphones stuffed in his face after the Red clinched the Ivy League championship against Harvard on March 1, sophomore guard Louis Dale calmly answered the questions posed from voices obscured behind several cameras.
“What was the key that allowed you guys to go undefeated in Ivy play?”
“I would have to say that it’s all about defense,” Dale said. “After we lost to Bucknell, Colgate and Syracuse, [head] coach [Steve Donahue] really tested us. He pushed us on defense and we became a great defensive team. I think that’s pretty much why we’ve been winning so much.”
The games Dale mentioned were the sixth through eighth games of the year — all losses. Off to the side a few minutes later, sophomore guard Ryan Wittman — a big part of the team’s defensive improvement according to Donahue — casually talked with one reporter. Same question. Same answer.
“I think the key point in the season were the Bucknell and Syracuse games when we were just trying to rely on our offense to win games,” Wittman said. “Then we hit that three-game losing streak and coach made us realize that if we’re going to win games in the Ivy League we have to become a defensive team. I think from that point on we really did that.”
Donahue blamed no one but himself. Despite a 4-1 record going into the skid, he recognized a need for change.
“After the [Bucknell game], we just had a great conversation as a team,” Donahue said. “I was extremely disappointed in myself that I allowed it to get to that point. I got caught up in [the fact that we were] winning games, we’re scoring 88 points a game [through four games].”
The Red was also shooting the ball at one of the best clips in the country. Through five games, the squad was hitting 52.1 percent from the floor and 52.4 percent from behind the arc. But Cornell was also giving up nearly 82 points per game over that stretch.
“We changed how we practiced,” Donahue said. “We were allowing guys to stay fresh instead of working hard, and there wasn’t enough accountability for failures on defense. There wasn’t enough competitiveness in practice. As I said, it was all me. Over break we were able to do more teaching and defense and change all the drills in the sense that there was a winner and a loser. There was just a lot more competition. … You lose, the other team runs suicides.”
And it looks like Donahue was right. The team still finished its regular season ranked sixth in the nation in overall field goal percentage, No. 4 in 3-point shooting and, just to be well rounded, ninth in free-throw shooting. But after the loss at Syracuse brought the losing streak to three, the most noticeable change was on the defensive end. Cornell clamped down on its next eight opponents, holding them to 37.8 percent shooting and only yielding 59.5 points per contest.
When the Ivy League season rolled around, nothing changed. The Red holds its opponents to the lowest field goal shooting percentage of any team in the Ancient Eight. Each Ivy game, it seemed that when the Red made its run to put away the opponent, everyone would credit a defensive lockdown.
“The results are very consistent efforts on defense game-in and game-out,” Donahue said.