The postponement of the 2020 NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball tournament cut short the decennial celebration of Cornell’s remarkable 2009-10 men’s basketball season and March Madness run.
The feats of the 2009-10 team, holding Cornell’s best record and deepest tournament run in school history, signify an elite caliber of achievement that reflects a strong legacy deserving of reminiscence 10 years later.
Prior to the 2009-10 season, the Red came off a strong three-year winning stretch under head coach Steve Donahue. Cornell was the Ivy League champion in both the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons before facing early first-round exits in the NCAA tournaments to Stanford and then Missouri, respectively.
The 2009-10 campaign marked the culmination of this strong unit’s success, featuring nine seniors led by forward Ryan Wittman and center Jeff Foote. Returning six of the team’s top seven players in terms of minutes played, including guards Louis Dale, Geoff Reeves and Chris Wroblewski in addition to Wittman and Foote, the group was experienced and poised to inflict serious damage on the court.
The Red’s 2009-10 seniors were a remarkable group of players whose accolades suggested a season of coming success. Wittman, the son of NBA former player and head coach Randy Wittman, was a unique talent who had shined at Cornell since his freshman year, earning second-team All-Ivy honors in 2006-07 as well as first-team honors in 2007-08 and 2008-09.
Dale also earned first-team All-Ivy honors in 2007-08 and 2008-09 and Ivy League Player of the Year in 2007-08. Foote earned second-team All-Ivy honors in 2007-08 and 2008-09 and was the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year in 2008-09.
Cornell shakily eased into the season, losing two of the first four games to Seton Hall and Syracuse before showing its strength. The Red won the next 10 straight games, most notably a 91-88 victory over Davidson in which Wittman drained a buzzer beater from 35 feet to cap a 29-point performance.
Besides a close 71-66 loss to Kansas and a weak 79-64 performance against Penn, the Red continued the season without blemish.
Aside from the 2007-08 season in which it went 14-0 in conference play, 2009-10 showcased Cornell’s best Ivy League play with convincing double victories over Dartmouth, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Brown and Yale. Needless to say, the Red finished the season as champions of the Ivy League with a 13-1 record in conference play.
Even after a 27-4 season featuring two close losses to AP top-five teams, Cornell still hadn’t earned the respect of the collegiate basketball community, entering March Madness as an Associated Press-unranked 12th seed.
On March 19, 2010, Cornell silenced the critics with a decisive 78-65 win over fifth seed and AP #12 Temple for the first NCAA tournament win in school history. Dale exploded for 21 points and Wittman added another 20 to cement a victory in which the Red outrebounded and outshot the Owls.
Two days later on March 21, 2010, the Red’s miraculous run continued with a shocking 87-69 win over fourth seed and AP #16 Wisconsin. Once again, Dale scored 26 points and Wittman added 24 to lead the team against the Badgers.
Unfortunately, the dominant run ended when a stacked first seed and AP #2 Kentucky team led by future NBA all-star John Wall defeated Cornell 62-45 in the tournament’s round of 16 March 25, 2010.
Cornell’s dominant lineup was well-rewarded for their record-breaking success during the season. Wittman’s senior stardom earned him an honorable mention to the AP All-American team and a unanimous selection as Ivy League Player of the Year.
Foote was again selected as the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year. Both Wittman and Foote as well as Dale, were all chosen as first-team All-Ivy team members and Wroblewski earned an All-Ivy honorable mention.
With the graduation of the majority of Cornell’s starting lineup, including Foote, Wittman and Dale, the Red fell out of prominence and hasn’t since returned to a winning culture.
The departure of coach Steve Donahue, winner of the 2009-10 season’s Clair Bee Coach of the Year Award, for Boston College was another significant loss for the gutted team.
Since 2009-10, Cornell hasn’t seen a winning season and has failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament under coach Bill Courtney (2010-2016) and Brian Earl (2016-present). Though success has been rare in recent years and hope seems hard to muster, the heroics of the 2009-10 squad show that Cornell can always have the potential of an elite basketball team with enough Big Red spirit.