March 31, 2010

Thank You Seniors

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An overlooked, undersized, “too nice to be good” point guard who battled injuries his entire career and still earned three first-team All-Ivy selections.  A high school multi-sport star who gracefully accepted a spot on the bench for his final year after previously starting and whose hustle, toughness and effort on defense may have exceeded that of any other player in the league. A lefty who came by way of a Texas community college to get his only career start on Senior Night, and spark the team with a pair of steals and buckets in the opening minutes. A guy who Division III coaches didn’t want but managed to transform himself into the top center the Ancient Eight has seen in years. An NBA veteran’s son who has done just about everything he can to put himself in a position to follow in his father’s footsteps. A tri-captain who managed to work his way from the end of the bench into a starting spot midway through his senior season, in time to propel his team to its first Big East win in 40 years. One of the other tri-captains who, without complaint, took a backseat to his close friend and fellow leader after he was sidelined with injuries and remained positive enough to be the catalyst for the most important league win of the year. A student-athlete who exemplifies both parts of the phrase as well as anyone else in the country, balancing simultaneously the all-consuming rigors of being an engineering student in addition to those of a Division 1 college basketball player.

You’d be hard-pressed to find another group in the country with as compelling individuals, but even more impressive over the last four years has been the seamless combination of these players from unique backgrounds to create a team that has become the pride of the University. Even international recognition as a top flight academic institution does not generate the excitement and campus unity that these eight seniors have helped to cultivate. And in that process, we’ve all caught a glimpse and a reminder of the beauty of college athletics and their intended, but often forgotten, role at a school.

Together, this class has had more success on the court in four years than the rest of the players who have come through this program for more than a century –– combined. A Sweet 16 banner in the rafters to go alongside a trio of Ivy League championships will be a nice way to begin their commemoration. As a witness to all that this group has accomplished, though, I would hope that Cornell takes it a step further. It would be unprecedented to retire the numbers of an entire class, particularly at an institution that has never retired a single basketball player’s number before, but the accomplishments of this group are unprecedented as well.

This class leaves Cornell having been part of teams that set all-time school records for points, assists, field goals and blocked shots in a season. It also helped to set the Ivy mark for 3-point field goals while leading the nation in 3-point field goal percentage, and won an Ancient Eight-best 29 games during a single season this year. In a streak that spanned nearly two full seasons, they ran off 21 consecutive wins at Newman Arena –– seven better than the previous high by a Big Red squad. The following year the same group that excelled in Ithaca was tops in the country away from home, winning 18 games at road and neutral sites. The three NCAA tournament appearances by the class of 2010 eclipses the total compiled by more than 10 decades of Big Red teams (2). And the pair of March Madness victories just last weekend are the only two ever by a Cornell squad.

Where the eight seniors will be next year is still up in the air. You think it’s tough to get a job in finance coming from Cornell? Try professional basketball. Still, Jeff Foote and Ryan Wittman have legitimate NBA aspirations and have both been selected to play in front of 200 scouts at the Portsmouth Invitational –– a pre-draft tournament for the nation’s elite seniors. In his final game, Louis Dale out-dueled John Wall, who has long been dubbed the No. 1 draft pick in 2010. Between that effort and his previous two nationally-televised gems in the NCAA tournament, you would expect and hope that Dale would generate some NBA interest as well. For the most part, though, as the NCAA loves to promote, these guys will be “going pro in something other than sports.”

Regardless of where they make their careers, this class will largely be disbanding following graduation in June. Before the Big Red’s historic run, Alex Tyler joked about the possibility of the group reuniting 60 years from now in a nursing home, with each guy filling the same dynamic. Whether or not Tyler’s jest becomes reality, this class will no doubt be remembered as a unit. One that played with unbridled passion and intelligence. One that played with a fun-loving attitude and an undying desire to succeed. And most importantly, one that played in the selfless manner that is so rare today on the biggest stages of collegiate athletics.

Original Author: Sam Aleinikoff