March 21, 2008

A Gameplan Breakdown … Literally

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Wow. I love the Cornell men’s basketball team. What an incredible ride this team has put us all through this season, bringing our University some national recognition — and hopefully, some more money (insert shameless plug here) — while lifting our school spirit and unity. Covering the team here in warm and sunny Anaheim, Calif., has been an incredible experience, regardless of the game’s final score.

But that loss was rough. Cornell came to play this game, as much as the score might not reflect it. The team had a good idea of the matchups and sets it would face and a how it would be defended. The issues turned out to be in the execution: Cornell couldn’t make a shot and the Stanford lead ballooned; the defensive situation became far more problematic than anticipated, and the Red defense cracked. Then, Cornell couldn’t or didn’t adjust on either side of the court. The result: a 21-point deficit in the first half, a 36-point deficit in the second half and a 24-point loss on national TV.

This is now the second blowout we’ve had on national television, after the B.U. game. As was the case in that contest, the score wasn’t due to lack of effort by the players: they just couldn’t overcome the matchup and execution problems. Another year will definitely help this young men’s basketball squad, which is graduating only one player in senior forward Jason Hartford, develop to a new level of basketball.

First some game notes:

Cornell …
… never lead.
… didn’t hit a field goal for the final six minutes of the first half.
… allowed 22 points in the paint in the first half alone, 44 for the game.
… was outscored 49-12, bench vs. bench.
… had only four second-chance points, while Stanford had 17.
… was out-rebounded 47-25 overall, 34-15 for defensive rebounds.
… had one fast-break basket.
… allowed three of the top-4 Stanford high scorers to be from the bench.
… allowed two of the top-3 Stanford rebounders to be from the bench.

So Here Are Five Things We Learned Today

  1. The Height Difference Proved Critical:
    As sophomore Ryan Wittman noted in the press conference, Stanford’s height at all positions — not just with the Lopez Twins — was something that was “difficult for us to block out.” Indeed, Stanford deflected seven shots, dominated the boards and second-chance points. Cornell simply could not stop Stanford’s players from scoring and rebounding consistently (big men or otherwise), and when it did, couldn’t take advantage by scoring.
    By focusing on the big men, Cornell gave the guards and “role players” significant freedom. Stanford’s guards had one of their best shooting performances of the year, largely because they had so many open looks. The role players stepped up with more freedom to work on offense, and because of this, the bench scoring was skewed in Stanford’s favor significantly. Stanford consistently rolled out taller lineups to counter Cornell’s strategy, ones that could play closer to the rim than Cornell, grab rebounds and put shots back up.
    Finally, the mere presence of size made Cornell’s players think twice. They picked up their dribbles too often, not expecting to have lanes cut off so quickly. They didn’t push for a break because they clearly weren’t comfortable with the 1-on-1 matchups to the rim. They didn’t shoot well because every shot was contested, even from 25 feet from the hoop. They couldn’t grab rebounds because they weren’t first to the ball. The list goes on, but the point is clear: height played a major role in Cornell’s performance offensively and defensively.
    The only positive was that Cornell was able to force almost twice as many turnovers, 19-11. Again, the swarming of the big men was responsible for most of this (a number of passes were thrown or deflected away), but it also gave everyone else the freedom they needed to preform. To win this game, Cornell needed to stop the big men and hope the other players could be defended despite less consistent/quick pressure: that turned out not to be the case.
  2. Cornell Had Its Worst Shooting Day of the Season:
    Shooting around 15 percent for the first half, including 14 percent from 3-point land, and having almost half your shots be 3s, isn’t going to get you anywhere in college basketball. Cornell shot about 50 percent in the second half, but by then the outcome was not really in doubt.
    To have a shot at a win, Cornell had to maximize its possessions given it’s offensive schemes as an outside-in team: it needed to make its shots from all ranges, which would open up the defense; add to its scoring total faster with 3-pointers instead of just 2s, which would compensate for misses and the loss of possessions through rebounds; keep Stanford from crowding the 3-point line, using some designed post plays to open up the game. The Red certainly did not do any of that. When Ryan and Louis combined for 1-for-15 at the half and Gore had only made 1-of-4, you knew Cornell was in trouble. Throw in a 1-for-7 combined by senior Jason Hartford and junior Jeff Foote (not totally unexpected given who was guarding them), and you get today’s result. Tyler was able to make a strong showing, but not with any consistency.
  3. Cornell’s Gameplan Is … oh … Yikes. This is a BAD Matchup for C.U.:
    Pressure the Bigs: check that box off. Pressure on everyone else: not really. Cornell’s gameplan defensively was to make the other players beat them, and rightfully so. Nobody can fault this idea. But the manner in which Cornell did this probably wasn’t the best: everyone else just had it too easy. Is that because Stanford was SO much better? It’s possible, but unlikely.

    [img_assist|nid=28938|title=Defense|desc=Sophomore Ryan Wittman founded himself closeley guarded most of the night by players such as Lawrence Hill (pictured).|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]

    So, what happened? First, the Red wanted to double/help down low, front the big men low, force them into the high post, or — ideally — just plain keep the ball out of the big men’s hands. The Red did the first one well, the second and third sporadically, the fourth even more rarely. The swarming worked fairly well in stretches, at least: Robin Lopez had a dominating game, but Brook was basically nowhere offensively.
    What happened, however, was this: Stanford just had too many bigger players. Lawrence Hill killed Cornell off the bench, playing only 16 minutes but leading the team in rebounding. When Taj Finger is scoring and rebounding (and I “hate” Taj Finger because he went to my rival high school), you know there are problems.
    That is what opened up play for the guards and the game’s leading scorer — again, from the bench — Kenny Brown: when the inside presence wasn’t being stopped, Cornell suffered mental lapses. It overcomitted to the Bigs, lost some defensive focus and paid the price from the shooters (Brown’s four 3s) and other big men (Hill, Finger, Fred Washington).
    Here’s a great example of what happened numerous times when a shot went up: Foote and Hartford would body up on a guy or two, but on many occasions, a third or fourth wouldn’t be covered well enough. The result: six rebounds for the Lopez twins combined (excellent), but seven, eight and 10 each for three of the other forwards (yikes).
    So, could any number of other strategies have worked? Maybe, though we’ll never know for sure. In fairness to the coaches, Stanford’s players caused a terrible series of matchup problems: asking the Red to defend that Caridnal onslaught was definitely a tremendous task. I just wish we had been able to try some more strategies.
    Offensively, (as discussed above) Cornell just could not buy a bucket, especially Wittman and Dale. The height was clearly a factor in altering shots, passes, offensive mentality, etc … but why not push for the fast break points before Stanford can get set defensively? A couple times, Dale pulled up on the fast break: why not try to draw a foul, score, or just do something other than run the half-court set, because it CLEARLY wasn’t working. Sorry I singled you out though Louis, because a number of the players just couldn’t adjust to the matchups or were completely thrown off their games … at least, that’s what it looked like.
    There were some good showings, for sure. Junior Adam Gore seemed fearless at times, but was limited to seven shots. Sophomore Alex Tyler had a good showing, attacking from the post, but also had only seven shots. Classmate Geoff Reeves continued to show a willingness to attack the rim or just create for others, but played 16 minutes. Brian Kreefer made some good decisions in his limited action.
    Cornell even tried to spark something by pressuring three-quarter and full court, but Stanford basically just passed OVER it a couple times (again, height anyone?) The urgency to score and fear of tall players was never clearer than when watching Dale, Cornell’s top player as well as one of its shortest: he uncharacteristically threw a number of his shots off the backboard, after getting into the lane and sensing a presence down low.

  4. [img_assist|nid=28937|title=Track Team Love|desc=The Cornell track teams show their support during the Cornell-Stanfrod matchup in Anaheim, Calif, on Thursday.|link=node|align=right|width=|height=0]

  5. The Cali Crowd Factor Was Huge … But Not In That Way:
    A LARGE Cornell contingent showed up. Stanford did not get a great showing. Cornell’s crowd — thanks to some help from the track teams, who are competing in the area this week — was significant enough that it drowned out the Stanford section, from where I was sitting, for a large part of the game. That certainly was a boost some players admitted. Certainly, the crowd didn’t have an effect on Stanford that Harrison and I were expecting it might. The UCLA game is a completely different story, but that’s neither here nor there.
  6. Ivy Teams CAN Play, but the Ivy League is a Different Level:
    Cornell came into this game as the nation’s best shooting team statistically, and lived up to this billing in the second half, for the most part. Nonetheless, this game proved that there are certain matchups that are just plain BAD for us as a non-scholarship conference and our team, and Stanford — a tall, defensive team — was probably one of the worst draws possible. But, since the players should be in this position next year, with any luck they will draw a more favorable matchup and perhaps even a more favorable seed.
  7. Seriously, I find it difficult to be so critical of this squad right now: it set school records for wins, win-streak length and points in a season. It had the most dominating stretch of play in recent Ivy League and all-time Cornell history. This team truly changed campus for the better this year. And the matchup was a No. 3 seed against a No. 14 seed.

    Men’s basketball deserves an enormous amount of praise and respect for everything it has done, and for representing all Cornellians in the NCAA tourney. I have a feeling that it will use this game for motivation and as learning experience, and will come out even stronger next season because of it.