November 14, 2008

Keeping the Banner

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The crisp red stripe traces the same gentle arc of a dull-by-comparison white line exactly one foot away. The ridges on the sides of the red line reveal it to be a recent addition, placed on top of the floor’s smooth finish.
Men’s basketball senior center Jeff Foote is thinking about the foot between those two lines and smiling. He’s thinking about the possibility of that one foot — the mere 12 inches that separate the NCAA’s new 3-point line from the old one — spreading defenses out.
“I like it a lot because our guys aren’t so close when I catch the ball,” he said. “So it’s good for me.”
The NCAA 3-point line, which had rested at 19-9 feet from the basket for the 22 years since its implementation, has been pushed back for the foreseeable future. With a steadily increasing number of 3-point attempts each year (19.1 per game last year, the most ever), and bigger, more athletic players packing the area inside the line, the NCAA decided to take action. By moving the line back, it is hoping to provide exactly what Foote is hoping for — more room to maneuver.
Still, it is anyone’s guess — coach, player or analyst alike — what the effect really will be.
“If you have shooters, the theory is that you’re going to have to go out and guard them and you’re going to space the court out,” said head coach Steve Donahue. “The problem I think people worry about in college basketball is that you can really pack it in and then where’s the movement? Where’s the ball flow?”
Moving the line back will certainly take some players out of the long distance equation. The mid-sized forward who can sneak out and drain a flat-footed 3 just often enough to keep the defense honest could be relegated to the post, his perimeter value gone.
In the extreme, this could be Foote’s nightmare — even more people in the post.
“I don’t know exactly [what will happen], I don’t think anyone does,” Donahue said.
Fortunately for Cornell, the personnel shooting the deep ball are not big men with a soft touch, but true shooters. As a team, Cornell netted 40.9 percent of its long-range shots, paced by junior Ryan Wittman’s 46.3 percent. Senior Adam Gore came on strong in the Ivy season, shooting 45.9 percent, second best in the conference. Junior point guard Louis Dale’s 3-point numbers dipped somewhat last year with more ball handling responsibilities, but he drained 46.8 percent his freshman year. All three were not shy about pulling up from no-mans land last year, and there seems to be no reason for that to change this year.
Still, there is an inevitable adjustment period.
“You’re going to see a lot of long 2s,” Donahue said. “Guys are going to step on that line. My other concern is on the sidelines, towards the corners, guys stepping out of bounds because you don’t have as much room. Everyday somebody’s done it. … You’ve just got to get used to it. You’ve got to talk about it.”
Just like Foote, though, Donahue has his own hopes about what changes the new 3-point line will bring. Traditionally, mid-majors and schools in weak conference snagged shooters like collector’s items, as power conference schools took their picks of the athletic players.
“I think that’s something [bigger schools are] concerned with,” Donahue said. “At least they’re thinking, ‘We better get some shooters in here to space people out.’ If they don’t, people are going to be clogging up the middle and it’s going to be very difficult.”
And for now, at least, that’s where the Ivy League — stereotyped as slow, goofy shooters — comes in.
“If you look at our games last year, we shot as teams way less 3s in-league than we did out-of-league,” Donahue said. “… I think that what we’re all hoping in our league is that it will help us compete outside the league better in the sense that other teams will have trouble making the 3s and we can still make that and stay in the game.”
If Donahue’s wish comes true, he could not have picked a better year to have it granted. The Red has perhaps its toughest non-conference schedule ever, with games against St. John’s, St. Joe’s, Indiana, Syracuse and Minnesota scattered into the upcoming weeks.
“It is going to be tough,” Wittman said of the schedule. “I hope that it will make us better at the same time. I think it will make us realize that we don’t have those early season games to get ready. We’ll have to be ready right away or else we’re going to get beat.”
Another place a strong opponent could come into play would be months away, but on the biggest stage of the year — the NCAA tournament.
“If you’re fortunate enough to win the league, you’re prepared for the environment we played Stanford in,” Donahue said, referring to the team’s first-round exit in last year’s Big Dance. “Bigger crowd, bigger team, you hopefully learn how to survive early. That will help us a little if we are fortunate enough to get to the NCAA tournament.”