The saying “so close, yet so far away” captures the Cornell men’s basketball team’s 2010-11 season, if the object of the phrase refers to contending for an Ivy League championship rather than a Sweet 16 run.
In head coach Bill Courtney’s first year following Cornell’s historic season, the Red won only two of 12 games decided by five points or fewer on its way to a 10-18 campaign and a 6-8 Ivy record, sending the team into the off-season needing to revamp for a second stab.
A strong finish last year provides promise for the 2011-12 season. The Red won six of its last nine games, including the final three contests in late February and early March. However, an eight-game losing streak before the New Year and five straight defeats to begin conference play plagued Cornell’s season, putting the squad in a much different position than 12 months before.
Senior guard and co-captain Chris Wroblewski anchors the team, leading a crop of several inexperienced players. The only current member of the Red who played significant minutes during the three consecutive Ivy League championships, Wroblewski led the team in points (14.7), assists (5.7) and steals per game (1.5) last season.
The other co-captain, senior guard Drew Ferry, ranked second on the team with 11.9 points per contest in his first year since transferring from Palm Beach State, while senior guard Max Groebe pitched in with 6.7.
Lesser-known backcourt players like sophomore guard Jake Matthews and junior guards Miles Asafo-Adjei and Johnathan Gray served primarily defensive roles, using their speed and intensity to try to turn over the opponent — catering to Courtney’s style of coaching. However, the transition didn’t click immediately, as the team averaged only 68.1 points.
“Throughout the season, you’re going to see us pressing a lot more and picking up the tempo of the game,” Wroblewski said. “We want a high possession pace — we want to win, 90-80, in most games. So I think opponents are going to be uncomfortable with how fast the game is.”
With the graduation of forwards Adam Wire ’11, Mark Coury ’11 and Aaron Osgood ’11, the Red frontcourt will undergo turnover for the second straight year. While the trio combined for only 16 points per game, the big men provided a solid interior presence on defense. The Red could be in trouble on the boards, though, as the team averaged only 32 rebounds per game last season before the departure of the trio.
“We’ve been doing a lot of 1-on-1 and 2-on-2 box out drills in practice lately,” said junior forward Errick Peck. “It’s really all about effort as a team and being hungry to go after the ball.”
Junior forwards Josh Figini and Eitan Chemerinski showed potential in limited action last season, averaging 3.2 and 2.2 points, respectively, and they will be expected to pick up the slack in 2011-12. The athletic Peck, who shrugged off a slow start last season to average 11.0 points, figures to play an even larger role this year.
The list of players does not end there. Sophomore guard Dominick Scelfo returns from a season-erasing knee injury, while sophomore forward Dwight Tarwater, junior forward Peter McMillan and senior guard and forward Anthony Gatlin all had flashes of production in 2010-11.
Freshmen guards Galal Cancer and Devin Cherry and freshmen forwards Dave LaMore, Shonn Miller, Nonad Tomic and Deion Giddens contribute to an endless Red roster.
“We are such a deep team — coach [Courtney] isn’t afraid to play 12 or 14 players a game,” Wroblewski said. “We come in waves at you and we’re always pushing the ball.”
While the Red’s depth has not changed since last year, the team certainly hopes its ability to close out games will. A crushing two-point loss on Nov. 19, 2010 to St. Bonaventure — also Cornell’s first opponent this year — was the first of three straight defeats by a margin of five points or fewer for the Red last season.
The team did not regain its composure in tight games until a two-point win at Penn on Feb. 26. Wroblewski and Peck are confident that the squad is better prepared this season to win down-to-the-wire contests.
“We’re a little more experienced this year, which I think you are going to see reflect in wins and losses and how we play at the beginning of the year,” he said. “I have to be a cool, steady hand out there, directing traffic and making sure that during those times of adversity, everybody just calms down and remembers our goals and what our focus is.”
“I think [winning close games] really comes with experience,” Peck added. “We’ve been shooting more free throws in practice, which is important late in games. Not getting the job done and the fact that we’ve experienced the failure side in late-game situations makes us know that we don’t want to be there again.”
Although the Red did not finish games last season as well as it did in 2009-10, Cornell can still hit plenty of 3-pointers to keep the team in games. The club made 251 shots from behind the arc last year (nine per game). Wroblewski connected on a team-best 43.3 percent of his attempts from long range, while Ferry hit 39.0 percent. Peck and Groebe followed at 37.9 and 37.5 percent, respectively.
“[Opponents] are going to have to get up on our shooters — we have four or five guys that can knock it down from 3-point range,” Wroblewski said.
The Red hit 14 shots from behind the arc in a close loss, 71-66, on Dec. 4, 2010, at then-No. 13 Minnesota — one of two nationally ranked opponents that defeated the Red last season. Cornell could face a handful of Top-25 teams this season, as the Red is slated to play at Penn State, Illinois and Maryland over Winter Break. Nonetheless, the team is focused on gaining ground in the Ivy League, not on pulling off an illustrious upset.
“We are very prepared going into the season,” Wroblewski said. “Last year we got off to a slow start, but now we’re all a year older and a year more experienced with coach [Courtney] and his philosophy. I think with that year under our belt, you should see us hit the ground running this season.”
Original Author: Quintin Schwab