It has been six and a half years since Cornell men’s basketball won three straight conference championships. Six and a half years of losing seasons. Six and a half years of looking up at the league champion from near the bottom of the league.
With the 2016-17 men’s basketball season kicking off Friday against Binghamton, that could all change.
The road back to the top of the conference begins again, and, with a veteran roster, a new coach and an inaugural conference tournament, this year is looking brighter than in the past.
With just two additions and two losses — neither of whom who played much last season — the team’s roster looks almost identical to last year’s, with 97 percent of last year’s minutes returning this season.
After the program parted ways with Bill Courtney in March, Cornell hired former Princeton associate head coach Brian Earl. Since arriving on campus and taking over the program, Earl — a former star player for the Tigers — has yet to make any sweeping changes to a team that finished last in the league last year, relying instead on small tweaks to begin the program’s turnaround.
According to the team’s dishing-and-swishing duo of Robert Hatter and Matt Morgan, Earl has not altered anything too drastically with the team.
“Coach Earl has been doing a great job of letting us still play the way we play,” said Hatter, a senior guard. “He tries to make the offense and defense flow the way we play naturally.”
Earl has emphasized shot selection and good decision making, according to Morgan and Hatter, two high-octane scorers who tended to take ill-advised shots, leading to decreased efficiency levels. Morgan, the league’s leading scorer last year, shot 41 percent from the floor last year. Hatter, third in scoring, was right around the same percentage.
“I watched a lot of film on the shots I took last year,” Morgan said. “A lot of them were shots that I could have gotten a better shot later on in the possession.”
Last year’s team, in typical Courtney fashion, played at a frenetic pace on offense and defense. The former coach took pride in play at “warp speed,” hurrying the ball up the court following defensive rebounds and shooting early on in the shot clock. The Red had the most possessions in the league last year by a wide margin.
Earl said the most notable change in this year’s squad will be slowing everything down, allowing the team to play with more precision.
The new head coach has also focused on giving more autonomy to the guys on the court, allowing them to look to each other for offensive play calling.
“[On the court], I’m not really listening to what my coach has to say, but what my teammates have to say,” Morgan said, “because he wants us to kind of coach ourselves and listen to what our teammates have to say instead of going to him for all the answers.”
After spending several years with Courtney as their coach, there was certainly an adjustment period for some of the older guys on the team. Earl praised the ability of the men to adjust to a new system. When he played at Princeton, there was a coaching change and he acknowledged the difficulties that come with a change in leadership.
“It takes a lot of resilience and an open mind,” Earl said. “[The team has] done a great job with rolling with the punches which is what life is about a little bit.”
Hatter, who said he and Earl have great communication, helped some of his teammates make that transition.
“[My goal was to] make sure everybody’s morale is good because there was a new coach and coaching staff.” Hatter said. “Some guys felt different types of ways, but right now everybody is on the same page and that’s been the biggest thing I’ve wanted to do, just making sure we have camaraderie and make sure we all have the same goal.”
And that goal is to make the inaugural Ivy tournament and come out on top.
“We have a really good shot this year,” Hatter said. “So I just want to make sure we do everything we can to get an Ivy championship.”
With the season so close to starting, Earl admitted even he does not exactly know what the team will evolve into as the year progresses.
“I have no idea what’s about to happen, but [that it’s] exciting,” the first-year coach said. “We’re putting something together that’s new but with older guys who understand what needs to be done.”
With a new coach at the helm and a new goal to strive for, the Red kicks off its season on Friday against Binghamton at 7 p.m.