March 15, 2010

Cornell Basketball: It’s Hard Not To Talk About

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For the men’s basketball team this season, the first rule of the NCAA tournament, might as well have been you do not talk about the NCAA tournament. Well … sort of.

“We talked about it a little bit, I won’t lie –– it did cross our minds a few times. One of our goals is to a win a game in the Tournament –– win a game, or two … or six,” added senior tri-captain and center Jeff Foote.

A lot has been written about Cornell’s struggles in the Tournament the past two seasons –– from contending with the Lopez twins in 2008 against Stanford, to the poor first-half shooting that doomed the Red against Missouri in 2009. This year, however, led by the most decorated senior class in the history of Cornell basketball, the team is poised to make good on its ambition to survive the opening round.

And it’s not just the depth of Cornell’s roster that has the players feeling confident, but rather the belief that they have what it takes to finally make some noise in the Big Dance –– a mentality that may have been lacking in previous years.

“I just think we have higher expectations,” said senior guard Louis Dale. “I was talking to some of the guys on the team about it … how I [was] more excited this year about finding out where we’re going and who we’re playing than I have been in the past, just because we’re feeling a little more … anxious to get going.”

“Our confidence level is a lot higher. We’re a more experienced team, we know how to play with each other, and I feel like we’re a much better team than we were last year,” Foote said. “We all seem to be clicking on all cylinders.”

This feeling is not just shared by the players, as even head coach Steve Donahue admitted that he has sensed something different from his team –– and not just in the weeks leading up to the Tournament, but throughout the season.

“I always thought last year … when we went and played St. John’s, Boston College … I sensed that [the guys] were nervous, [that] they were trying to prove that they were as good as them. The sense this year was, ‘We’re not going to lose our poise, we’re just going to play our game,’” Donahue said. “When you have that mentality, you play much more relaxed. I thought we did that all year. I didn’t think we played tight all year against, in particular, the bigger teams we’ll see in the Tournament.”

According to Wittman, the Red’s conviction in its ability to contend on the national stage can be largely attributed to “the success that we’ve had against more athletic, bigger conference teams … in the non-conference portion of the schedule. That’s something we didn’t necessarily have the previous years coming in. … We know how to close out games against those types of teams.”

Cornell is hoping that such game time experience will pay off on Friday against its opening-round opponent, Temple (5) –– a team that many analysts agree was severely underseeded. Although lacking in height, the Owls are an athletic squad that boasts the third-best 3-point percentage defense in the nation and is ranked No. 4 in overall field-goal percentage defense.

As Wittman said before the Red even learned its fate on Selection Sunday, “You’re going to play a team that’s pretty athletic. A lot of those teams from the bigger conferences like to get out in transition, which isn’t something necessarily that Ivy League teams do, so that’s definitely going to be a point of emphasis; obviously we’re going to have to rebound extremely well, which is something we did in stretches during our non-conference season.”

While Cornell boasts signature wins against such schools as Alabama and St. John’s, it might actually be the resonance of a signature loss to the No. 1 team in the country that enables the Red to make a run over these next few weeks.

“As weird as it sounds, I think the Kansas game had a lot to do with what we are and who we are … even though we did lose the game. I thought that was the most difficult situation I’ve ever coached in in my 20 years in the league, and I was so proud of how we played. I also feel if we’re able to advance in the NCAA tournament, we’ll look back on that and say, ‘That was what we were thinking when we left that locker room –– that [if] we get another chance like this, we’re going to take advantage of it and win the game,’” Donahue said.

When asked how far they can go, none of the players wanted to pull a Jay Bilas and venture a bold prediction invoking the Elite Eight, or even the Sweet 16. However, Dale did offer up this comment:

“Sky’s the limit, honestly. We played Syracuse this year, we played Kansas. They were both No. 1s at one point during the year, and we played them pretty competitively … I think we can play with any team in the country.”

Original Author: Alex Kuczynski-Brown