New year, new mindset.
For the Cornell men’s basketball team, 2018 ushers in a shift in focus towards its Ivy League championship aspirations. Following a dominating 93-69 win last Friday over Central Penn to signal the end of non-conference play, the Red is now fully readying itself for its first conference matchup at Penn this Friday.
“It’s great to end on a win and go into Ivy play with that momentum,” junior guard Matt Morgan said of the victory over the Knights. “[The game against Central Penn] allowed us to get a look at the things we still need to focus on, but we’re feeling pretty good heading into conference play.”
Simply put, the Red certainly feels more confident heading into Ivy play under head coach Brian Earl’s second year at the helm as opposed to his first. Last year, Cornell entered conference play with a 4-11 record — a contrast to this year’s 6-7 mark before its first Ivy matchup, albeit in fewer games.
In particular, the Red has gone 3-3 over the winter period, including consecutive wins over Longwood and Lafayette and an overtime thriller against Delaware which ended in a one point loss for the Red.
“We’ve had our difficulties in non-conference play, but we’ve been working since August on a lot of our weaknesses,” junior forward Stone Gettings said. “The team [has] been pretty excited and I think we’ll surprise a lot of people.”
As projected heading into the season, junior classmates Morgan and Gettings remain the standout focal points of the Red offense. Morgan comes off his second consecutive Ivy League scoring title and a a declaration for the NBA draft, and he has brought his game to new heights. The guard currently ranks fourth in the nation in scoring at 24.9 points per game, up from 18.1 last year, while maintaining extremely efficient shooting at 51 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc.
“I’ve focused on the same things as last year and making my layups and jumpshot more efficient,” Morgan explained about his continued improvements. “The real difference is that we’ve all gotten better as a unit which has given me more opportunities … and put me in the position to score.”
Gettings has also transitioned well into a role as the team’s clear second option on offense. After tearing his MCL in September and recovering just in time for the Red’s season-opener against Syracuse, the forward is now averaging 15.8 points per game on 49 percent from the field, including a pair of consecutive 30 point outings against Niagara and Delaware in late December.
“We’re a very young team which starts juniors, and it was difficult for me [to sit out] for the preseason … because I [wasn’t building] the same chemistry that the other guys were,” Gettings said. “However, I think the past few weeks have showed that chemistry is really starting to click on offense.”
Despite stellar offensive play, one central problem lies with this year’s squad in its defensive effort, especially in tight games. Of the Red’s 13 games played, six have been decided by single digit, with the team squandering several double digit leads over the course of the season, including against Binghamton and Toledo.
Nevertheless, the Red views these close games as valuable learning experiences which can only improve the mental fortitude of the team moving into conference play.
“Playing in close games [and maintaining leads] has definitely been a problem this year,” Morgan said. “We work on those situations all the time in practice — being up or down by a certain amount. It’s just a matter of recognizing those situations in game as a team and applying what we’ve practiced.”
Of course, Cornell will also continue to focus on an offensive scheme. In particular, the starting unit has demonstrated its cohesiveness and all-around nature of this team. In addition to Morgan and Gettings, senior Wil Bathurst and junior Jack Gordon offer much-needed spacing with their 3-point and penetration threats, while junior transfer Steven Julian has showcased a level of athleticism which has long been non-existent on the Red.
“The past few months have shown that … everyone on the team contributes in their own way [and] there are guys aside from myself [and Morgan] who can score the ball,” Gettings said.
As the Red sets its eyes on the league championship, it will also look to qualify for the Ivy League tournament, especially after missing out during the tournament’s inaugural season last year.
The Red begins the long trek towards an Ivy championship this Friday, Jan. 12 at 8 pm on the road against Penn.