After months of basking in post-title glow, the men’s basketball team will now raise its 2007-08 Ivy League championship banner at Newman Arena — the ceremony will take place just before tip-off tonight in the Red’s season opener against South Dakota, recently moved up from Division II.
“[Starting the new season is] actually kind of nerve-wracking,” said senior center Jeff Foote. “I really just want to be out there and finally play [another team] … It’s good to have the crowd behind you.”
Cornell has won its last three season openers, including an 87-83 home court victory over Lehigh last November. [img_assist|nid=33585|title=Riding high|desc=Junior forward and 3-point specialist Ryan Wittman will help the Red try to repeat its Ivy successes of last year.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
And eventually, the Red finished 14-0 in Ancient Eight play last year, making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years. Picked to top the league again this year, the Red is in a different position than it has been previously at the start off the season.
After last year’s season, the Red is aware that hype will be building well before the team’s Ivy League opener.
“This year, we have a target on our back [from the beginning],” said junior forward Ryan Wittman. “But we kind of had experience with that last year towards the end of the year, so I think we’ll be prepared for it.”
The Red has had to make some adjustments, of course. With the departure of starting forward Jason Hartford ‘08, Foote will move into a starting role along with frontcourt-mate Alex Tyler, a junior who started in 27 games last year.
Adjustments required by injuries to other key players, however, could not be predicted.
Senior guard Adam Gore will not play tonight, sidelined at least until January with a torn ACL. The two-year co-captain was a second team All-Ivy selection in 2005-06 and 2007-08. Another injury is more short-term — junior point guard Louis Dale is almost definitely a no-go to even play for Cornell in the season opener tonight because of a hamstring injury. Without Dale, the Red will be without last year’s consensus Ivy League Player of the Year.
“It will definitely be a change of pace,” Foote said. “When [Dale is] in, he runs the show. So we’re going to have to have some guys step up.”
Senior co-captain Jason Battle has been handling the ball in practice and is next in line to assume Dale’s responsibilities. Junior Geoff Reeves can also take over, according to Donahue, and inside players like Wittman and senior co-captain Brian Kreefer can handle the ball if needed.
The Red also has the option to bring in talented, if inexperienced true freshman point guard Chris Wroblewski, who chipped in for 12 points during the Red-White scrimmage.
The biggest concern that Cornell has about South Dakota is the squad’s reputation for size and physical play. The Coyotes averaged just under 40 rebounds last year to the Red’s 33.5, as well as 6.4 blocked shots per game to the Red’s 3.1.
“The forwards, especially Alex [Tyler], we’re pretty physical guys ourselves,” Foote said. “I have a lot of faith in myself and Alex to handle [South Dakota’s tough play down low].”
Wittman and Donahue both emphasized the competitiveness of the Coyote program. Head coach Dave Boots has guided it to D-II success for two decades.
The Midwest team’s 2007-08 record of 22-6 matched Cornell’s overall record, and Donahue doesn’t see much of a difference in the quality of play between South Dakota and Ancient Eight rivals.
“This is a team that’s much more like a Division I team than a Division II team,” he said. “They were ranked No.1 in the country in Division II for awhile last year. … I think you’ll see the same type of competition that we typically see in the Ivy League.”