ITHACA, NY -- When you walk through the front doors of tiny Newman Arena, it's hard to imagine that the basketball game that's about to ensue will be a key determinant to whether the Ivy League receives two bids to the NCAA Tournament.
That was the case Saturday night as Cornell and Harvard took the floor in front of a sellout crowd of 4,473 people, including a student section that the players and coaches raved about.
Nearly two hours after it started, seldom-used reserve Miles Asafo-Adjei drilled a desperation three-pointer at the end of a shot clock to extend Cornell's lead to 85-48.
That's right. The Big Red pounded the Crimson by 36 in arguably the most important Ivy League game in ages. The aftermath left one thing clear.
“I feel very comfortable playing any team in the country on a neutral court with this group,” said Cornell coach Steve Donahue. “I feel that we’d fare well. I think that we have enough experience, size, skill, and toughness to compete with anybody in college basketball right now."
The Big Red should get its shot in March to beat anybody on a neutral court. The win allows Cornell to control its own destiny with 10 games left in a league without a conference tournament.
Win out and Cornell is guaranteed to make the tournament. If the Big Red were to lose to Harvard in a rematch in February, then lose a one game playoff to the Crimson, then Cornell could still make an argument it belongs in March.
This one game alone jumped the Big Red 15 spots in Kenpom.com's efficiency rankings to a solid 41st. If Cornell loses just the two games to Harvard, then Donahue's team would finish with a 28-5 record.
It would be a 28-5 team that Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and Kansas coach Bill Self both raved about after playing. The same went for Harvard's Tommy Amaker who repeatedly hammered away how good this Cornell team is.
“Depth, talent, experience. And they play very hard,” Amaker said. “There’s nothing else to really say. I think they’re an outstanding basketball team. One of the better teams in the country, from what I’ve been able to see.”
Cornell did everything to take Harvard out of its game. Pressure defense limited star guard Jeremy Lin's touches as the senior finished with as many turnovers as points (four) in the first half.
Cornell made everybody else on the court besides Lin beat them, but the Crimson didn't have the weapons to do so. The Big Red doesn't have that problem.
Foul trouble limited the minutes and rhythm of the Big Red's star, Ryan Wittman who never got going in the first half.
"This is a group who doesn't care who scores," Donahue said. "It's really honestly true. There's not one guy who cares if he gets his points."
Saturday night was a perfect example. With Wittman not a factor, Cornell's guards frequently fed the post to seven footer Jeff Foote. Harvard was slow to double-team which gave Foote all the time in the world to back his smaller defender down and record five first-half field goals, including two thunderous dunks that sent the student section into a frenzy.
When Harvard finally doubled Foote, capable shooters Louis Dale and Jon Jaques took over from the perimeter to drill five of nine three-point shots. The aftermath of Cornell's balanced attack was a 16-0 run and a 14 point halftime lead.
The 36 point victory puts Cornell back on the national radar, which Cornell's players get a kick out of, but they also know the importance of national rankings.
“Coach says all the time that the ratings and all that don’t really matter to us. We have to focus on ourselves and get better every day,” Foote said.
He then smiled and finished his response.
“But it would be kinda cool to be in the top 25.”
Just think. An Ivy League school in the top 25 not for the quality of its academics, but for the quality of its basketball team.
If Cornell keeps winning, that's exactly where it will find itself.
For more updates on college basketball, follow @JamesonFleming on Twitter. Jeremy Lin photo credit belongs to Jameson Fleming.