April 21, 2010

The Future of Cornell Basketball

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Last October, former Cornell Basketball assistant coach, Nat Graham called the sudden departure of fellow assistant Zach Spiker “a whirlwind.” If that’s our standard of measurement, then the current situation would have to be considered a full-fledged, Wizard of Oz style, tornado. And no Toto, we sure as hell we aren’t in Kansas anymore.

The way most people see it, the Big Red wouldn’t even be able to compete on the same court as Kansas next season.  Eight seniors who accounted for better than 73% of the scoring and two thirds of the minutes are gone.  A pair of assistants who had a combined 8 years of experience at Cornell and had both been a part of all three Big Red Ivy Championships this decade are en route to Chestnut Hill.  And most importantly, the man that pulled Cornell from the Ancient Eight cellar into the Top 25 in the country will be leading the way to Boston College. It’s a mass exodus to say the least.

Still, there is reason for hope on East Hill. While production and experience is on its way out the door, there’s plenty of ability sticking around. Last year’s recruiting class was widely regarded as top group in Cornell Basketball history. Former Big Red head coach, Steve Donahue, who recruited this year’s freshman class and also recruited the record setting class of seniors that will graduate next month, said before the season, “what we brought in talent-wise, the type of kid, the athleticism and the size; it’s our best class we’ve ever brought in.”

On the college level, in game situations, no one has truly seen enough of the rising sophomores to give a fair assessment. The only guy to crack the regular rotation this season was Errick Peck.  But the fact that an unproven freshman was able to steal some minutes at the stacked small and power forward positions was a feat in its own right. Cornell’s all time leading scorer, a two-year starter, a captain who broke the 20 point plateau multiple times this year and a bench player who was thought of as one of the team’s top defenders and offensive rebounders, all were vying for minutes at those two positions. Still, Peck managed to carve out a spot for himself.

Perhaps most impressive has been the timing of Peck’s top games. He notched eight points and six rebounds in just his fourth ever collegiate appearance, at Big East power Syracuse. He scored 13 much-needed points, including a massive 2 handed slam, during an overtime win at Bucknell. In another extra period thriller, this one in Madison Square Garden, Peck added 8 points to help the Big Red advance to the Holiday Festival championship game.

During the NCAA Tournament, Peck didn’t hesitate to relax and allow the older players to take the spotlight. On multiple occasions, when the Cornell locker room was opened up to the media, the freshman was spotted sleeping on the floor rather than answering questions. With the new team though, he seems to be taking on a more assertive role. In a conversation after the season with Brian Delaney of The Ithaca Journal, Peck said, “As a whole we’ll be fine next year. I don’t think anybody’s leaving. Actually, I can guarantee no one’s leaving.”

While Peck may be the lone returning freshman with significant game experience, the roster is loaded with upperclassmen ready to step into larger roles. Chris Wroblewski was the Ivy League Rookie of the Year for the 2008-2009 campaign and earned an all-league honorable mention last year while scoring 8.9 points in 29.6 minutes per game. In three match-ups with Big East opponents, he averaged more than 17 points per game, and several times during last year’s league portion of the schedule, Donahue referred to Wroblewski as the Red’s top on-ball defender.

Stepping into the second starting guard spot will likely be Max Groebe. During a season which saw the Red lead the nation in three point shooting percentage, Groebe led Cornell in the same category, knocking down triples at a 56 percent clip. He was originally expected to be an impact player in the Atlantic 10 for the University of Massachusetts, but following a coaching change, opted to transfer to Cornell.

In the frontcourt, Peck, along with seniors Adam Wire and Mark Coury, seem to be the logical choices to cement spots in the starting rotation. Both Wire and Coury played in all 34 games last season and each averaged better than 10 minutes a game. At 6 foot 9 inches, Coury has the size needed to step in at the center position.  Although he only started one game last year, he brings major conference experience from Kentucky, where he started 29 games before transferring to Cornell. With the Big Red, as was the case with the Wildcats in his previous stop, Coury has been looked to as an energetic rebounder and defender. Next year, he may have to become more of a scorer without another low post, offensive threat.

Similarly, Wire has, throughout his career, been pegged as a defensive minded player who helps on the glass and generates turnovers. Also like Coury, Wire may be asked to take a more active role in the offensive game plan next season. Although his scoring impact has been minimal through his first 3 years, he has never been a top shooting option. With the graduation of most of the players that Wire has deferred to throughout his career, his opportunities should increase dramatically. And based on the results from last year, we can expect his production to do the same. In his only 30-minute game of the year, Wire grabbed a career high 13 rebounds. While playing 24 minutes at UMass and 19 minutes against Seton Hall, he scored 7 and 11 points, respectively. Similar playing time would seem to be in the cards for his final year with the Red.

Anthony Gatlin and Aaron Osgood are a pair of dark horses to break into the starting lineup next year and at the very least will provide quality depth and size at the forward positions.  Both feature well-rounded offensive games with the ability to score in the paint and from the outside. While Osgood is a senior who has spent three years in the Cornell program, Gatlin transferred from Centenary College prior to last season and spent the 2009-2010 campaign playing with the scout team in practice.

Gatlin is among an uncompleted, but already large, seven-man incoming class of newcomers for next season.  Another transfer, Andrew Ferry, via Valparaiso and Palm Beach State Community College along with Gaitlin and five freshmen, will join the Big Red, with the possibility of adding more contributors before next year.

Regardless of the replacements on the bench, it seems that the Big Red do indeed have the pieces in place to be a contender for their fourth consecutive league crown. Last year may have been an aberration to some extent, but don’t be surprised if the dip that would be expected given all of the changes this offseason is minimal.   It may not be as simple as clicking our heels together three times, but Cornell Basketball will be back strong next year.  Hopefully, students will continue to fill Newman Arena as they have the past several years and we will once again be able to say, “there’s no place like home.”

Original Author: Sam Aleinikoff