January 31, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing

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It was billed by many college basketball analysts as the early season Ivy League game that would ultimately decide the 2009-10 conference champion. It was the game that would settle which of the eight Ivies will be dancing in March. Although Cornell has 10 conference games remaining, the Red took a significant step forward in claiming its third-consecutive Ancient Eight championship Saturday evening with an 86-50 drubbing of Harvard.

The Red (18-3, 4-0 Ivy) snapped the Crimson’s (14-4, 3-1 Ivy) seven-game win streak with a complete team effort. All five Cornell starters posted double figures while senior center Jeff Foote registered a team-high 16 points and nine rebounds. Cornell took advantage of a young and inexperienced Harvard squad, capitalizing on a 16-0 first half burst and a 17-0 second half explosion to coast to victory.

While the contest was considered a barometer of the two best teams in the Ivy League, it also featured the two premier players in the Ivy League, Cornell senior forward Ryan Wittman (17.5 ppg. and 41 percent 3-pt.) and Harvard senior guard Jeremy Lin (17.1 ppg. and 4.4 apg.), both vying for Player of the Year accolades. However, Foote stole the spotlight as Wittman played only 11 minutes in the first half due to foul trouble and Lin struggled with a mere four points to match his four turnovers at the break. Cornell’s lockdown three-quarter court press kept Lin off of his game. Meanwhile, Foote proved to be a dominating inside presence on both ends of the court.

“I don’t think they exactly knew how to guard me,’’ Foote said. “I just knew that I had an advantage with size and strength. They do a much better job of defending. They do a terrific job all-around. I was able to get into my moves more and the lack of a double team really helped me out. I was able to get in my groove today.’’

The 7-0, 265-pound pivot man exploited smaller opponents and single coverage throughout the entire contest. Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker refused to double team the 2008-09 Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year for fear of unleashing Cornell’s precise perimeter shooters. Without a significant center to stand in his path, Foote took turns abusing the 6-8 sophomore Keith Wright and 6-7 senior Doug Miller.

“From scouting, I always thought [Foote] was the key to the team,’’ Amaker said. “He scores on the inside. He’s a great passer and he’s a very unselfish player. I’m very fond of his game and I admire how he plays. I mentioned to the kids that he’s the guy that makes them go.’’

Once Harvard cut the deficit to 19-17 midway through the first half, Foote ignited the boisterous crowd and sparked a 16-0 run with a one-handed slam over Miller. Amaker turned to his bench, but there were still no answers to be found as freshman Kyle Casey and sophomore Andrew Van Nest proved equally futile in their efforts to harness Foote.

“I thought this was the game where we knew we needed to utilize Jeff,’’ said Cornell head coach Steve Donahue. “We talked about it because [Harvard] scrambled around so well. I told him to slow it down and take it in and he’s one of the best passing centers in the nation.’’

Harvard’s sloppy play was exploited by a stout Cornell defense, which has vastly improved in recent weeks. The Crimson turned the ball over 25 times, including 14 steals. Lin found his groove in the second half as he dropped a game-high 19 points, but it was too little too late. Lin’s ball handling was problematic as he withered under the Red’s pressure and committed eight turnovers. Cornell’s rejuvenated defense was on display as the Red scored 29 points off turnovers, and held Harvard to a season-low 50 points.

There was certainly an elevated sense of importance attached to this game, as the sold-out 4,473 raucous fans in attendance were well aware that early season Ivy League bragging rights were on the line. The Red remained dominant on its home floor in the Ancient Eight, extending an 18-game home conference winning streak with the victory.

“I would compare it to the first time we won the Ivy League title,” Foote said. “The crowd was rocking. They gave us tremendous energy and made it a great college basketball atmosphere. It really fires us up and we really like to play in front of a lot of people.”

The new ESPN/USA Today Top-25 Coaches Poll comes out this afternoon, and Cornell entered this weekend tied at No. 27 with New Mexico. When asked about the team’s chances of breaking into the Top-25 after defeating Dartmouth by 34 points Friday night and Harvard by 36 points Saturday night, Foote initially downplayed the importance.

“Coach says all the time that the ratings and all that stuff doesn’t really matter to us. We have to focus on ourselves and getting better every day,” but Foote admitted, “It would be kind of cool to be in the Top-25.”

However, Coach Donahue sensed the team’s excitement and immediately clarified Foote’s diplomatic response. “You got the real answer in the second part of that,” he quipped.

Later, Donahue added:

“The only thing I would say is I feel very comfortable playing any team in the country on a neutral court with this group. I feel that we would fare well. We have enough experience, size, skill and toughness, to compete with anybody in college basketball right now.”

Original Author: Matthew Manacher