If last season represented a season of change for the Cornell men’s basketball team, then the upcoming 2017-18 campaign can be considered one of stabilization.
Last year’s changing of the guard at head coach and the inauguration of a conference tournament, which seemed well within reach at times for the Red, had more than a few believing the team could finally pull itself out of the bottom of the league standings.
Yet despite all the excitement, expectations never turned into reality. The team trudged to an 8-21 overall record, with its 4-10 conference record good for seventh place in the Ivy League.
This season represents a complete reversal from the storyline of last season. Head coach Brian Earl now has a full year of coaching under his belt and has welcomed in the first recruiting class of his tenure. Players lost over the offseason have taken remnants of the old system with them, while incoming rookies start afresh with the new system.
All said, this team is slowly but surely integrating into Earl’s system.
“We’re more solid and together as a program,” Earl said. “It was a pretty radical change between the philosophy from years prior and last year, and just having more minds on the same page will really help.”
The Red returns three starters in juniors Stone Gettings, Troy Whiteside and two-time All-Ivy second-teamer Matt Morgan. Rotation players in senior Wil Bathurst, junior Jack Gordon and sophomore Josh Warren are projected to be big contributors this season, and junior JUCO transfer Steven Julian is projected to play a large role as well.
“Everyone just really wants to play and keep getting better,” Earl said. “Jack Gordon … is our best shooter in practice, Josh Warren has come back and given himself over to improve in areas he wasn’t comfortable with, and Matt is just a baller.”
Of course, the Red will be particularly happy to welcome back Morgan. The guard has been a centerpiece of the offense, leading both the team and league in both of the last two seasons, and made his intentions to go pro quite clear when he declared for the NBA draft at the end of the last season but withdrew his name from consideration to retain eligibility.
“[Declaring for the draft] was just a great experience [in] finally inching my way to making my dream come true,” Morgan said. “Of course I want to get even better, so this offseason, I’ve just been rounding out my … ball-handling, mid-range shooting and especially communicating.”
With all the pieces set, the Red will be looking to prove its critics wrong, especially on the heels of a sixth-place ranking in the annual Ivy League preseason poll. However, at the end of the day, Earl does not believe the team is in any place to say what it is or is not capable of accomplishing until assessing itself in its first game.
It just so happens that the first game of the season will be traveling to take on perennial powerhouse Syracuse, coached by none other than Basketball Hall-of-Famer Jim Boeheim.
“Syracuse is a big opponent, but it’s been a long preseason and we’re excited to finally play someone other than ourselves,” Earl said.
While all eyes on the upcoming season opener will be focused on freshman Jimmy Boeheim’s return home to play against his father, Earl has his eyes set on the big picture. In particular, the team will be focusing on facing the legendary 2-3 zone defense, which has helped Jim Boeheim become the second-winningest Division I men’s coach of all time.
“[Facing the zone] does throw a little bit of a crimp into what you want to do because we work so much on man-to-man, which most teams in the country play,” Earl said. “But it also lets you tinker with some things and try to figure out how to beat the zone, know that you won’t go up against this defense for pretty much the rest of the season.
However, comparatively, the Red has gotten slightly taller compared to previous years — an upgrade which will help against Syracuse’s formidable defense. The team lists four players at 6-foot-8, all rotation players, and while Syracuse still boasts taller players on the average, the size disadvantage between the two teams will not be as easily exploited as in years past.
“The size that we have now compared to other teams will benefit us on the wing,” Morgan said. “We have a lot of guys who have size and can also handle the ball, pass and shoot, so we’ll be able to do a lot of different things compared to previous years.”
Both players and coaches are wary of expressing adamant expectations for the year. But one thing is certain: the team believes everything is coming together and it is heading in the right direction.
“We’re ready and have been working all preseason,” Morgan said. “We’re all on the same page and it’s just a matter of making sure everything is set and put in the right place.”
The Red kicks off its season on Friday against Syracuse at 7 p.m.