February 3, 2011

Getting off on the Wrong Foote

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What’s the key to a Sweet 16 season if you’re an Ivy League basketball team that can’t give out athletic scholarships?

Lure a lanky former walk-on in a seven-foot frame, beef him up and coach him up, apparently.

Without a doubt, there were several excellent players on the historic 2009-10 Cornell team.

Louis Dale ’10 was the Ivy League player of the year in 2007-08, a three-time first-team All-Ivy selection and a Bob Cousy Award nominee his last two seasons (given to the nation’s best point guard). He is now playing professionally in Germany.

Ryan Wittman ’10 also earned three first-team All-Ivy selections, was the star of the first weekend of the 2010 NCAA tournament and is Cornell’s All-time leading scorer. He was playing professionally in Italy and is now in the NBA’s D-League.

But I’m convinced the loss of Jeff Foote ’10 — the aforementioned 7-0 two-time Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year who sat on St. Bonaventure’s bench for a year and a half — had more of an impact on this year’s Cornell squad than the loss of all five other graduated players.

Foote and the others brought Cornell from Ivy League mediocrity to Ivy League greatness. The departure of Foote brought Cornell from Ivy League greatness to Ivy League lowliness.

I wanted to write this column after the Cornell backcourt accounted for 52 of the Red’s 54 points in a two-point home loss to St. Bonaventure (coincidence?) on Nov. 19 that dropped the team to 2-2 on the season. Instead, I thought I’d give the Cornell forwards time to develop, and the team as a whole time to form an identity.

But the Red has lost 12 of its 14 games since then and now it’s clear: senior forwards Aaron Osgood, Mark Coury and Adam Wire, who are some of the nicest athletes I have come across, are simply not getting the job done on offense.

Allow me to make the statement just a tad bolder: their lack of production (relative to Foote’s) is the main reason Cornell has gone from the first Ivy League team to reach the Sweet 16 since 1979 to  a cellar-dweller within 11 months.

The Ivy League has seen its fair share of outstanding guards. What separates Ivy teams from the pack — what launches them from obscurity to the national scene — is ultra-talented forwards. It’s far more common to have an Ivy League roster composed of players all under 6-10 than it is to have one without a star guard.

While Foote was mostly known for his dominating presence on defense, he did average 12.3 points per game last season and was the focus of the Red’s inside-out offense. If he was in the game, it was rare for Foote to not get a touch on every offensive possession.

Junior guard Andrew Ferry isn’t Dale. Sophomore forward Errick Peck isn’t Wittman. And no … well yes, junior guard and tri-captain Chris Wroblewski is Wroblewski.

All jokes aside, let’s take a look at the facts:

Cornell has been dominating from behind the 3-point line this season. The Red ranks 17th nationally with almost nine 3-pointers made per game and is holding opponents to an Ivy League-best 32.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

It’s not like the Red is a turnover machine — the team averages a respectable 13 giveaways per game, half of which are produced by the club’s post-players (who handle the ball much less than the guards).

How about the backcourt shooting? Wroblewski, Peck and Ferry all have better-than-average 3-point marks above 36 percent and while Ferry shoots only 38 percent overall, he still averages 11.6 ppg.

Free-throws? The team shoots a subpar 66 percent. Can’t blame that on the backcourt: Ferry shoots 87 percent, Wroblewski 83 and Peck 70. On the other hand, Osgood, Coury and Wire shoot 50, 59 and 43 percent from the charity stripe, respectively.

Peck  is technically a forward, but I am making a distinction here between forwards and post-players. In terms of post-players, Osgood leads the Red in scoring with 7.3 points per game. The big three post-players accounts for a mere 23 percent of the team’s scoring.

I believe little of the blame can be put on first-year head coach Bill Courtney — not for the struggles of the team overall, but for the ineffectiveness of the post play.

I trust Courtney’s rotation —which, in all fairness, he has jumbled up time and again — and doubt loads of production exist deep on his bench.

I did just sneak in Courtney without asking whether the loss of former head coach Steve Donahue to Boston College be a bigger loss than Foote. Almost, but no.

I’ve seen only 18 games from Courtney, but he is closer to Donahue than Osgood is to Foote.

I do not knock Osgood, Wire and Coury personally. Wire is one of the scrappiest players I’ve ever seen, Osgood is a good leader who is coming off an ACL injury and Coury has a nice story regarding his transition from starter at Kentucky to reserve at Cornell. It’s also hard to blame people for not being seven feet tall.

But no matter how you add it up, the value of those three players is miniscule compared to that of Foote.

I’m not saying the Red would be primed for another Sweet 16 run if Jeff Foote were on the 2010-11 Cornell roster. But I can guarantee the team wouldn’t be sitting at 4-14 overall and 0-4 in the Ivy League.

Essentially, Courtney needs to recruit some potent post-men, and quickly. Few will ever be like Foote, but many can pull the Red out of last place in the Ivy League.

Original Author: Quintin Schwab