Road to the Final Four: Cornell Ready to Lap Ivy League Field
The year was 1998 and for the first time in a generation the government had a budget surplus. Countless graduates of Ivy League schools played a major role in turning American economics around.
As the budget turned around, so did Ivy League basketball. Few teams during the past decade could remotely compare to the last great Ivy League team.
The 1998 Princeton squad lost just two games, and the Tigers' methodical offensive system became popular across the country.
But since 1998, only a few Penn teams could even remotely sniff the skill and success of the '98 Tigers.
A new Ivy League team is ready to make a national impact because of un-Ivy League like talent and a daunting schedule.
Cornell's starting line up is so head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league, an all-league team made up of the best players from the rest of the Ivy League may not be able to beat the Big Red this season.
It's bold, but a statement tough to argue against.
Cornell will practically monopolize the league's All-Conference team as at least three members of the Big Red are practically shoe-ins.
Cornell's next three best players could all start and either be the top contributor or second most important player on almost every other Ancient Eight school.
Plus, the Big Red bring in two transfers from higher profile schools that add depth.
Coach Steve Donahue may not have the league's best player (that distinction should probably go to Harvard's Jeremy Lin), but the Big Red might have the conference's second, third, and fourth best stars.
Wing Ryan Wittman is the son of former NBA guard and Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman. The small forward averaged at least 15 points per game in each of his first three seasons and dropped 18 per game last year.
His slick stroke almost single-handedly knocked off Syracuse last year in the Carrier Dome. Against the Orange, he scored 33 points and knocked down nine three-pointers.
Ryan's dad, Randy, must have taught Ryan well. The Cornell senior showed unbelievable poise as he launched three-ball after three-ball against the 'Cuse 2-3 Zone.
Most of his shots came from well behind the arc because Jim Boeheim extended the zone to try to stop him.
It didn't work.
The Big Red at one point held a 15-point lead behind Wittman and did so without Wittman's co-star Louis Dale, who missed the Syracuse game and seven others with a hamstring injury.
Dale returns at full strength for the 2009-2010 season and could challenge Wittman for the team lead in scoring.
Dale, the 2008 Ivy League Player of the Year, won't be relied upon to be the team's leading scorer, but with opponents more likely to key in on stopping Wittman, Dale could reap the benefits.
Cornell's point guard distributes the ball effectively to his endless supply of options, but can also score with ease. Dale's a solid shooter and can also get to the basket fairly easily.
Dale developed alongside Cornell star Adam Gore, but Gore missed last season with a torn ACL decided not to return to Ithaca for a fifth season.
Had Gore played out his final year of eligibility, the Big Red would have four players worthy of being all-league selections.
Scary, isn't it?
The final player in Cornell's deadly trio is center Jeff Foote. He's a lumbering seven-foot tree that controls every aspect of the glass while he presides over the paint.
Foote is the best defender in the Ivy League because few players can remotely challenge his size and strength.
The Cornell center won't impress anybody with his range, but the big man is highly polished around the basket which is extremely deadly in a mid-major league.
Like most mid-majors trying to close the gap with the major-conference schools, Cornell shoots the lights out from three-point range. Besides Wittman and Dale, Chris Wroblewski and Geoff Reeves are accomplished marksmen from deep.
Wroblewski is the league's reigning Newcomer of the Year after having an outstanding freshman campaign. He drilled a team best 44 percent of his long bombs while Cornell's second winger, Geoff Reeves connected on 42 percent of his attempts from deep.
Coach Donahue will have another weapon from behind the arc as UMass transfer Max Groebe is eligible this season. Groebe is a catch-and-shoot guard who will fit into Donahue's system quite effectively.
Donahue also has more depth in his front court with Kentucky transfer Mark Coury. He didn't see much playing time in the Bluegrass State, but Coury will bring a major-conference body to the Ivy League. Coury will likely backup Foote and the final returning starter Alex Tyler.
Tyler's a svelt 6'7'', 235 pounds who complements Foote's toughness on the blocks.
Cornell has the size to compete with the big boys, but the size isn't the key to Cornell's success.
The three-point bomb is how Cornell almost beat Syracuse last year and will upset at least one of its many NCAA Tournament foes this coming season.
Four returning players averaged at least one three-pointer per game and star Ryan Wittman drilled almost 100 last year. Max Groebe gives Cornell a fifth option from long distance.
The Big Red opens its season with four games against Alabama, Massachusetts, Seton Hall, and Syracuse. There's a chance Cornell could start the season 4-0.
The Crimson Tide should be mediocre this year, UMass is a mid-rate A-10 team, the Hall doesn't play a lot of defense, and Cornell is built to beat Syracuse's 2-3 Zone.
Later games against St. Joe's, Davidson, a much-improved La Salle, and preseason favorite Kansas provide more opportunities for Cornell to garner the respect its first round opponent in March will need to avoid being up-ended by an Ivy League school.
If everything goes right for Donahue's club, Cornell can win six or seven of those games. Looking at the remaining schedule, the Big Red shouldn't lose another game.
An undefeated conference run like 2008 is definitely possible and the Big Red could become every barely top-25 team's nightmare in March: the always dangerous 12 seed.
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