February 2, 2010

Cornell Basketball Earns Spot in Top-25 for First Time in 59 Years

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For the first time in 59 years, the men’s basketball team finds itself ranked among college basketball’s elite –– appearing in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll at No. 25. Cornell received 53 votes from the panel of 31 Division 1 coaches, and is also on the bubble of the Associated Press top 25 poll –– occupying the second spot of “others receiving votes” with 39.

“It wasn’t too much of a big shock … but we weren’t really expecting it,” said senior forward Ryan Wittman, who is averaging 17.5 ppg. to pace the Red and became Cornell’s all-time leading scorer on Dec. 29.

The last Cornell team to rank in a national poll was the 1950-51 squad that climbed as high as No. 14 in the AP poll on Jan. 3, 1951. That season, the Red opened with nine straight wins, including one over Stanford. The team then fell out of the rankings following an 85-45 loss at Columbia.

On the other hand, the last Ivy League squad to make a splash in the national limelight was the 1997-98 Princeton team that finished at No. 8 in the final AP poll and No. 16 in the final USA Today/NABC poll. During that season, the Tigers also advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.

Thus far, the current players have yet to hear of any comparisons being drawn between them and the Princeton team of ’98, though Wittman acknowledges that such talk might very well arise in the future, especially as March Madness approaches.

Despite receiving the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the Tournament the past two seasons, Cornell has been unable to clear the hurdle that is the opening round –– falling to Stanford and Missouri in back-to-back years. However, after opening the 2009-10 campaign with a road win over Alabama (13-8), clinching its first-ever Madison Square Garden Holiday Festival title and putting a scare into No. 1 Kansas (20-1) –– after which Jayhawks’ head coach Bill Self called Cornell “the best team we’ve played this season” –– the Red (18-3) now finds itself the subject of many analysts’ blog posts and articles as a team that could make some noise come March.

Coaches the likes of Norm Roberts (St. John’s), Bobby Gonzalez (Seton Hall) and Jim Boeheim (Syracuse) have echoed this sentiment, with Boeheim remarking a couple weeks ago that he would put Cornell at a No. 6-4 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament. Responding to a question on his blog in the aftermath of “the Kansas game,” ESPN.com’s Andy Katz wrote that the media continues to underestimate the Red. Interestingly enough, this was before Saturday night’s 86-50 thrashing of Harvard (14-4) –– the one Ancient Eight team expected to pose a legitimate threat to a Red three-peat –– and before Cornell entered the Top 25 yesterday afternoon.

“It’s nice to be recognized, but at the same time it doesn’t move us any closer to our goal of winning the Ivy League championship,” Wittman said. “If anything, it makes it tougher.”

Both Wittman and Jaques downplayed any notion of the inevitable swell in media coverage becoming a distraction to the team.

“We have a lot of seniors, and have gotten lots of exposure the past few years … so we’re used to the attention,” Jaques said. “Every team is going to come after us no matter what.”

Original Author: Alex Kuczynski-Brown