With the Cornell men’s basketball team trekking to Cambridge for a Saturday evening showdown with the Crimson, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the 2009-2010 Big Red team that helped put Ivy League basketball back into the national conversation.
Over Presidents’ Day Weekend in 2010, Steve Donahue’s squad split its two weekend Ivy League contests, getting blown out by Penn on Friday night before bouncing back to edge Princeton the following evening. The contests seven years ago were some of the only hiccups for a Cornell team that suffered just five losses all season, won 13 conference games by an average of 18.5 points per game, and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. In the seven years since, the tables have drastically turned for the Big Red and the rest of the Ivy League.
Cornell’s golden era, a three-year run that provided the the institution high above Cayuga’s waters three of its five all-time NCAA Tournament appearances, ended in the blink of an eye. Sixteen days after his team was bounced by Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament, head coach Steve Donahue bolted to take the same position at Boston College. The Big Red handed the 2011 Ivy League crown to Harvard, a team it beat by 36 when it visited Ithaca the year before, and Princeton. Since its Sweet Sixteen appearance, Cornell has won 29 Ivy League games in six-plus seasons and just hired a new coach. For context, the Big Red won 38 in Donahue’s final three seasons in Ithaca.
While a rising tide has lifted all eight Ivy League boats over the past seven years, Cornell has definitely not kept up with the pace of rivals Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Despite the improved rosters and overall level of play in conference play, no Ancient Eight team has made it out of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend since 2010 and only the Crimson’s 2013-2014 team and the 2015-2016 Bulldogs squad have been able to match the Big Red’s 13-1 record in conference play.
Few would argue that the level of play in the league on any given Friday or Saturday night has gone up. Teams are prying recruits away from the Big East, ACC, and Pac-12 rather than from the America East and Atlantic Ten. Princeton won 22 games last season and Columbia (Columbia!) won the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament. It’s no coincidence that the Ivy League decided to add a conference tournament at a time when the league believes it could receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. So, why is Cornell the only Ivy League team since 1979 to appear in the Sweet Sixteen?
The Big Red’s 2009-2010 team had many of the ingredients a mid-major team needs to make a deep run in March. To begin, Donahue is a savage when it comes to scheduling tough non-conference opponents. That reality largely lost him his job at BC, but for the 2009-2010 season, the rigorous nonconference slate worked wonders. Cornell opened the season at Alabama, traveled to UMass, played in the Legends Classic in Philadelphia, took on No. 10 Syracuse and top-ranked Kansas on the road, and had tilts against the Big East’s Seton Hall and St. John’s. That is what you call a nonconference schedule. For context, the eight Ivy League teams have combined to play 109 nonconference games this season and a whopping three have come against teams ranked in the Top 25.
Secondly, the Big Red knew how to win in the Ivy League. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker often alludes to the fact that one Ivy League team can beat any other in the conference on any given night. Given the back-to-back games and importance of styles of play and matchups, a win, especially on the road, is never a sure thing. For instance, Penn steamrolled Cornell and beat Columbia last weekend just a week after getting manhandled by Princeton and losing to a previously winless Dartmouth team.
Donahue’s crew did not really have that problem. While the average Ivy League team in 2017 is deeper and more talented than in 2010, the Big Red wasn’t playing the 2010 or 2017 edition of Dartmouth every weekend. Princeton went 11-1 against teams not named Cornell and Jeremy Lin ’10 led the Crimson to what was at the time the most successful season in school history. Apart from the loss at the Palestra, the Big Red did not really take any nights off once conference play arrived. Rather than letting Penn hang around after it beat the Tigers for its biggest win of the season, Cornell proceeded to spank the Quakers, 68-48. It blew out teams it was supposed to blow out and won close games even though it didn’t need to very often.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the Big Red was experienced. Cornell’s senior class was one of the most prolific in Ivy League history. The team’s eight seniors went a remarkable 88-33 over their four seasons in Ithaca, brought home three conference championships, and lost only nine Ivy League games. While underclassmen made significant contributions throughout the season, the Big Red’s best players were its seniors. That’s not to say that experience alone was what gave Cornell personnel advantages. Jeff Foote transferred in from St. Bonaventure while forward Mark Coury, who was a reserve for Donahue, started for Kentucky. The team was loaded with three-star recruits from across the country.
Ryan Wittman was the Ivy League’s Player of the Year and Foote was the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. Louis Dale was the third fourth-year from the Big Red on the Ivy First Team and all three players were unanimous picks. Wittman was also an honorable mention All-American. Wittman, Foote, Dale, and the rest of Cornell’s seniors had been to the NCAA Tournament in the two seasons before their 2010 run. Fifth-seeded Temple was the team playing with jitters when the two met in Jacksonville, and the rest of the nation saw what everyone in Ithaca had grown accustomed to when the Big Red blew the doors off of fourth-seeded Wisconsin two nights later. Its challenging nonconference slate and veteran leadership allowed Cornell to thrive in close games. The Big Red was 11-1 in games decided by fewer than 10 points, with the only loss coming on the road against No. 1 Kansas.
Fast-forward to 2017. A young but talented Harvard team has been inconsistent at the beginnings and ends of games. The Crimson has trailed at halftime of six of its eight conference games but holds a 6-2 league record. After conducting a clinic on how to blow a lead against Princeton at home two Saturdays ago, Harvard closed out Yale by getting stops on defense and hitting big shots last weekend. The inconsistency has been visible across the league. The Tigers, the team to beat in the conference this season, hold a perfect 8-0 record but nearly lost to cellar-dwelling Dartmouth and boast Bucknell as their best nonconference win. Despite Yale’s win over Baylor in last season’s NCAA Tournament, most sites project the Ivy champ (currently penciled in as Princeton) as a 14 seed. An Ivy League team has not been ranked as a 14 seed or worse since a 20-10 Crimson team made the Big Dance in 2013.
While none of this year’s Ancient Eight teams much resemble the Cornell team of 2009-2010, an appearance by an Ivy League school in the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend does not seem too far off. The Ivy League’s improved level of play may hurt conference win-loss records at the top but is good for the league in the long run if teams can start scheduling nonconference games like Donahue.
Harvard is sitting at second in the conference and has shown that it can beat (and lose to) anyone despite being led largely by freshmen. Yale’s freshmen and sophomores have shown that trips to Payne Whitney Gymnasium will be miserable for reasons other than the fact that the arena is located in New Haven for years to come. Jim Engles has Columbia in line for an Ivy Tournament berth despite having very few players who logged significant college minutes before this season. Princeton is chock full of seniors but Devin Cannady is arguably the league’s most talented player as a sophomore. And who knows, maybe Donahue will be able to work his magic at Penn. Brian Earl may be the second coming of Donahue in Ithaca and Cornell’s freshman class could go on to win 88 games over the next three-plus years, but I’m not holding my breath on that one. However, it does look like the Ivy League may not have to wait another 40 years to see one of its teams playing at the Staples Center or Madison Square Garden rather than the BOK Center in Tulsa or Boise’s Taco Bell Arena.
Now to the picks:
Undefeated Crimson Ready for Big Red ChallengeThe Harvard football team has dominated Cornell in each of its last two meetings, but you may not remember them.
Eli, Green, Court Triumphs Leave Crimson in Ivy CellarTwo startling upsets in Ivy League basketball games Saturday night have placed the idle Varsity quintet in the cozy isolation
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