March 4, 2009

Seniors Aid M. Cagers’ Success

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When they signed on with the men’s basketball team, the members of the Class of 2009 — Adam Gore, Khaliq Gant, Jason Battle, Conor Mullen and Brian Kreefer — must have been wondering what they were getting themselves into. In 2004-05, the year before their freshman season (except for Gant, who played that year), the Red went 13-14 overall with a respectable 8-6 record in the Ivy League. That team put up respectable, if not impressive, stats; it cruised to a second-place finish in the Ivy League, but did not pose a serious threat to Ancient Eight champion Penn’s 13-1 league record.
“Obviously we’re a lot better now,” said Gore, a team captain for the second year in a row.
Since that season, the Red has gone 70-42 overall and 40-14 in the Ivy League. The seniors’ fingerprints are on last year’s unprecedented 14-0 march to the league championship as well as its third NCAA tournament appearance. While they’ve played an integral part to this success, the story has arguably focused more on the players who will still be here next year, including juniors Louis Dale and Ryan Wittman and senior center Jeff Foote, who will likely return to the team in 2009-10.
“My freshman year, I came in and we had some great guys and good players, but in the last four years we’ve seen the quality of guys increase significantly,” Gore said. “Louis, Ryan, those types of players weren’t around when I first got here.”
Cornell’s roster is so deep that the seniors aren’t always in the spotlight, but head coach Steve Donahue recognizes the importance of their roles both on and off the court.
“What I appreciate most about these guys is their attitude,” Donahue said. “It’s never changed one day in practice during their four years, whether they’ve played 30 minutes per game, as some of them have, or haven’t even gotten into a game. They’re all about their teammates, about each other.”
Gore, a pinpoint shooter who Donahue calls one of the best 2-guards in the league, has seen his playing time fluctuate due to knee injuries at the beginning of this season, as well as during his sophomore season. But his 10 points per game and knack for making the big shot were a key part of the team’s championship season, and he has also contributed off the bench this season after a timely rehab.
“I think our group of seniors adds a lot of leadership to the team,” Gore said. “We’re not always going to play the most minutes or have the most talent on the team.”
Indeed, aside from Gore, the other seniors have seen their playing time drop off in favor of Wittman, Dale and the other top scoring threats on this year’s team.
Swingman Jason Battle, a team captain, has provided lights-out defense and decent scoring potential off the bench for the past two years after showing flashes of brilliant offensive potential his sophomore season. He averaged 3.4 points and 2.2 rebounds per game that season, but had a huge weekend at the William & Mary Tip-Off Classic, when he averaged 17.5 points on 66 percent shooting, 6.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists over two games. He put up a career-high 21 points in 41 minutes in the team’s overtime loss to host William & Mary in the tournament finals.
“Battle’s a guy that can play four different positions,” Donahue said. “He’s playing very well right now, settling into his role.”
Swingman and captain Conor Mullen is another player talented enough to see more playing time on a team without a roster as deep as the Red’s.[img_assist|nid=35748|title=All eyes on Gore|desc=Senior guard Adam Gore (23) fires a jump shot as senior center Jeff Foote (1) looks on during the Red’s 71-70 loss to Harvard on Feb. 28.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“Conor Mullen, whenever he’s asked to play, has played very well,” Donahue said.
Kreefer, a forward and captain, has provided a consistent post presence off the bench after seeing his playing time decrease due to the emergence of center Jeff Foote and forward Alex Tyler. He is averaging 3.6 points in 12.5 minutes per game this season, and has often been Donahue’s go-to player when the usual offensive threats seem to falter.
“Right now he’s playing maybe the best ball of his career,” Donahue said. “He has a tremendous feel for the game, especially for a big guy. Terrific passer, knows how to play. He really helps on offense and on defense, he just knows where to be.”
Gant played his freshman and sophomore seasons, averaging 2.5 and 2.2 points per game, but suffered a neck injury in practice that left him partially paralyzed. He regained full movement and returned as a full-time student to Cornell in Fall 2006, and continued to rehab with the team and attend practices and games.
“All of them, first and foremost, are tough competitors,” Donahue said. “When they first got here, we weren’t very good, and I think they took that as a challenge. They’ve done great things the last couple of years to reach this level with the program.”
“They’re really what has enabled us to be as good as we’ve been.”