December 2, 2010

Men’s Basketball Readies for Ranked Minnesota

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The Cornell men’s basketball team plays its second straight ranked opponent tomorrow night at 8 p.m. against No. 13 Minnesota at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, Minn. The Red will need a superb effort to snap its streak of four straight losses, the last of which came in a 78-58 blowout defeat at No. 7 Syracuse on Tuesday night.

The last time Cornell (2-5, 0-0 Ivy) played Minnesota (6-1, 0-0 Big Ten), the Gophers won, 71-54, on Dec. 6, 2008; the Red then won 17 of its next 21 games and a second straight Ivy League title. It’s doubtful a loss this time to the Gophers would have the same aftermath, as Cornell has struggled in the beginning of the post-Sweet 16 era under first-year head coach Bill Courtney.

“Obviously at this point we’d like to have a better record than [2-5],” said senior forward and tri-captain Adam Wire. “We feel like we should have won three of the games we lost, but that’s part of playing sports.”

Rebounding is Cornell’s Achilles’ heel and the reason for several of its close defeats, as opponents have out-worked the Red on the glass, 41-31, per contest through the team’s first seven games.

“Rebounding has definitely been our main problem so far,” Wire said. “Second chances are killing us. We don’t have the size or athletic ability to jump over people, so we have to box out and have all five guys—even the guards—crash the glass.”

The Red’s problems on the backboard will make it difficult to compete against the Minnesota frontcourt, which includes junior forward Trevor Mbakwe and junior center Ralph Sampson III. The two have combined for 25.7 points and 15.7 rebounds per game this season.

“The biggest problem [Minnesota] will pose is size,” said sophomore guard Errick Peck, who snapped out of his 2010-11 slump after high pre-season expectations with 14 points against the Orange—his first double-digit scoring game of the season, which led all Cornell scorers and tied a career-high. “We’re still an undersized team. We just have to come out aggressive and we’ll be okay.”

Peck was encouraged by his performance Tuesday night, and hopes to continue his rejuvenated play against the Gophers.

“I think I’m a product of the hard work I put in,” he said. “Unfortunately I hadn’t been working hard—just doing the bare minimum instead of putting in the extra work. That’s not me. I just have to keep working hard and go out and enjoy the whole experience of playing Division 1 basketball.”

Peck and the other Cornell guards must contribute against the Gophers —who lost against Virginia on Monday night for the first time this year, 87-79—in order to pull off the upset and raise questions about Tubby Smith’s team that climbed into the national rankings two weeks ago after its upset of then-No. 8 North Carolina. In addition to its productive set of forwards, Minnesota possesses a potent backcourt, which offers leading scorer and senior guard Blake Hoffarber.

In addition to the winner of the 2007 ESPY Play of the Year Award (from Hoffarber’s 18-foot shot on his back to send the 2005 Minnesota high school state championship game into overtime), the Gophers boast junior guard Devoe Joseph, who scored 16 points against the Cavaliers in his return from a six-game suspension, as well as defensive star Al Nolen.

Nevertheless, the Red players know they must focus on their own team to shake off the slow start to the season.

“We know we haven’t played how we’re capable of yet,” Wire said. We’re a young team that’s still getting used to each other and the new coaches. But we’re getting better and hopefully we’ll start getting some wins here.”

Original Author: Quintin Schwab