Cornell is for real.
Maybe its 28-4 record is inflated by playing in a weak conference.
Maybe the rest of the Ivy League still isn’t any good at basketball.
Maybe its near upset over Kansas in Lawrence on the road was an anomaly.
Maybe Temple didn’t deserve better than a No. 5 seed, as many experts claimed.
Maybe ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who boldly picked No. 12 seed Cornell to make it all the way to the Elite Eight by beating Temple, Wisconsin, and then Final Four favorite Kentucky, isn’t a genius.
But the Cornell Big Red is for real.
The team on display this afternoon that dominated No. 5 seed Temple in a 78-65 win was not your typical No. 12 seed Cinderella squad.
Yes, Cornell is from a mid or even low-major conference.
Yes, they are the first team in 12 years from that conference to even win a game in the NCAA Tournament.
And yes, they just won their first game ever in the NCAA Tournament.
All of those factors make them your typical feel-good Cinderella from a small conference that just achieved its “one shining moment” by advancing into the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
That might be No. 13 seed Murray State, which topped No. 4 seed Vanderbilt on a dramatic buzzer beater yesterday.
But Cornell is better than that.
The way they calmly patted each other on the back and shook hands after beating Temple, and how they didn’t run around the court like they had just done the greatest thing in their program’s history (which they had in fact just done) showed that the Big Red felt they belonged.
They have higher aspirations for this year’s tournament than a single victory, or even two.
Cornell looked and acted like a team with staying power today. They did not just look like a team that could eke out one more victory and make it to the Sweet 16, as some No. 11, 12, or 13 seed manages to do every year, but like a team that could keep winning and keep contending once they get there.
The Big Red displayed everything a Final Four or national championship contender should this afternoon.
They play a solid, somewhat unpredictable, and frustrating style of defense.
They have tournament experience, having made it to the Big Dance the last three years.
On top of that, most of the team’s main contributors are seniors with both overall basketball experience and NCAA Tournament experience—essentials for mid-major or small conference contenders.
They don’t rely on one player to get hot or take over a game in order to succeed.
The Big Red boast not one, but two conference players of the year in Louis Dale, who won the award two years ago, and Ryan Wittman, who won the award this year.
Both of those guard-forwards can carry the Big Red, but they can also fit seamlessly into a team-oriented, balanced offensive approach and score efficiently. Dale scored 21 points and Wittman tacked on 20 against Temple, while making a combined seven out of 13 three-point attempts and 13 out of 23 shots overall.
It’s not uncommon for a mid-major Cinderella team to have outstanding guard and forward play, but the Big Red also have a dominating presence on the inside in center Jeff Foote and can thus score in multiple ways and not rely on hot shooting from their guards.
Foote, a two-time conference defensive player of the year, provides the Big Red with an asset that few top mid-major schools in history have had, and something that even some of the title contenders this year don’t have—a seven-foot big man who is a force on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. Foote scored 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting against Temple.
If Cornell continues to advance through the bracket, Foote will become more and more important against top teams that will all have some variety of big, physical players clogging up the key on both offense and defense.
If the Big Red keep winning, a lot of analysts will start comparing Cornell to George Mason, a No. 11 seed from the Colonial Athletic Association that made a seemingly miraculous run to the Final Four several years ago.
The comparisons are apt, but with Foote’s seven-foot frame on the inside, Cornell has something that not even the undersized Patriots had. On top of that, they have better shooters in Dale and Wittman than George Mason had. The Big Red led the entire nation in three-point shooting this year.
Who knows if Cornell can beat Kentucky in a potential Sweet 16 game next Thursday—the Wildcats, after all, may be the best team in the entire tournament—but against Temple today they sure looked good enough to make it a fight.
If Cornell can contend and beat Kentucky, they can do that against any team in this tournament.
Is it likely that Cornell will win a national championship? Absolutely not.
Is it likely that the Big Red will make it to the Final Four? Probably not.
Is it likely that they will beat Kentucky? Maybe not.
Will they even win their next game on Sunday? Possibly not.
But Cornell is good enough to do all of those things, and if they lose in this tournament, it will be because a better team plays near its best or Cornell plays near its worst.
They will not be run off the court by a far superior team if they play well.
There is not a far superior team to Cornell at its best in this entire tournament.
The Big Red looked every bit like a Final Four-caliber team this afternoon.
That doesn’t mean they will get there—many more teams have that type of potential than will actually make it to Indianapolis.
But if one was willing to consider Villanova and Georgetown contenders to make it to Indianapolis before yesterday, then why not Cornell?
They certainly have a better shot than now-eliminated Georgetown.
And with the way Villanova just snuck by No. 15 seed Robert Morris yesterday, it’s hard not to think that if the brackets and bounces went their way, Cornell might have a better shot than the Wildcats of cutting down the nets at the end of this tournament.