Cornell Basketball Aims for One of Biggest Upsets Ever Over Kentucky

David WhiteCorrespondent IMarch 25, 2010

JACKSONVILLE, FL - MARCH 21:  Steve Donahue the  Head Coach of the Cornell Big Red is pictured during the game against the Wisconsin Badgers during the second round of the 2010 NCAA men's basketball tournament at Jacksonville Veteran's Memorial Arena on March 21, 2010 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Tonight, Cornell's men's basketball team has an opportunity to pull off one of the biggest upsets in the history of American sports.

Sorry if that sounds hackneyed or like just another writer's opinion about the respective talent levels or histories of two opponents, but that's only a small part of this story.

Before the Big Red tip off against No. 1 seed Kentucky tonight at around 9:57 PM EST at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, it's worth taking one more chance to appreciate that.

The magnitude of the potential upset only has so much to do with the team's respective rankings or talent levels.

Yes, Kentucky has more athletic basketball players and surefire pros (though Cornell has potential pros on its roster as well).

Yes, Kentucky is a No. 1 seed and Cornell is a No. 12 seed, which would make for one of the biggest upsets ever in a Sweet 16 game based on the difference in the two team's seedings.

And yes, even when you add in team chemistry, experience, and desire—all Cornell strengths—and throw out NBA potential, reputation, and seeding—clearly Kentucky strengths—the Wildcats should still beat the Big Red tonight.

But as college basketball analysts everywhere seem to agree, this game doesn't necessarily have to be a rout.

In fact, most are picking Kentucky, but continue to throw in the caveat that if Cornell star and Ivy League Player of the Year Ryan Wittman has the night of his life shooting threes and scoring points that the Big Red stand a chance of winning the game.

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas even picked Cornell from the beginning of the tournament draw—before they became everyone's Cinderella and blew out No. 5 seed Temple and No. 4 seed Wisconsin in the first two rounds—to win in this round against Kentucky and advance to the Elite Eight.

If Bilas and other analysts believed in the Big Red then, surely they believe in them even more now that they have not only pulled two upsets, but have done so with relative ease.

So while a Cornell victory over Kentucky would be an upset, it shouldn't be one of the most shocking of all time in this sport, much less American sports more generally.

In fact, it might not even be the most shocking upset of this tournament—Northern Iowa knocking off championship favorite Kansas in the second round could challenge to take the cake on that one.

So why would this be one of the biggest upsets in the history of American sports?

What makes the NCAA Tournament so captivating is that it provides everyone with an opportunity to compete and win.

A small school from a small conference with no basketball pedigree can make it into this event by winning its conference tournament. Then that school gives itself a chance to take on one of the elite basketball programs in the nation in the first round.

No other American sport can make quite the same claim.

Sure some teams that operate on much lower budgets than the top teams in their leagues can make seemingly miraculous runs in professional sports. The Tampa Bay Rays made it all the way to the World Series in 2008, despite having half the payroll of the two powerhouses in their division, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

But that's still a professional sports league in which all teams operate under the same rules, and all the players are paid professionals and among the best in the world at the game, whether they play for the Rays or the Yankees.

In the NCAA Tournament, you can have teams playing on television every night with massive athletic budgets and with players just waiting to make a leap into the NBA for their own multi-million dollar pay days playing against schools that have never played on national television before March and are made up of players pursuing one last moment of athletic glory before they go onto other careers outside of sports.

So where do Cornell and Kentucky fit into all of this?

We've seen upsets before.

We've seen small schools beat big schools.

We've seen teams with no future pros beat teams with NBA talent sitting on the bench.

We've seen George Mason as a No. 11 seed from the little known Colonial Athletic Association make it all the way to the Final Four by beating tournament favorite and perennial power UConn in the Elite Eight in 2006.

Most would consider the GMU Patriots' run through the tournament one of the most surprising in the history of this tournament, but it doesn't even come close to being on the level of a potential Cornell upset over Kentucky.


Cornell plays in the Ivy League.

That means the university can't even offer potential recruits athletic scholarships—that is not true of any other conference competing in Division I basketball. On top of that, the Ivy League, and Cornell, has much stricter academic requirements than the rest of the NCAA.

In a world where the NCAA constantly fights to regulate improper financial and academic benefits given to potential recruits and student athletes, Cornell can't even do so much as promise a kid who wants to go their to school that his education will be paid for (though schools can put together creative financial aid packages and grants, there are no guarantees and the tuition is not likely to be paid for in full).

It has to be a tough selling point to top a basketball recruit to come to a school with a $50,000 tuition check, limited national television exposure, and comparatively tough academic standards, when the alternative is playing for a university that will give you a full financial ride, put you on television every night, and if you are good enough, put you on the fast track to making millions of your own in the NBA.

Just for the record, Kentucky's basketball budget is more than $8 million, while Cornell's is less than $ 1 million.

Despite all of these disadvantages, Cornell coach Steve Donahue has put together a basketball team with the right mixture of experience, skill, chemistry, and confidence to become the first Ivy League school in the Sweet 16 since 1979, when the college basketball landscape was quite different and far less expensive.

Cornell has looked so good in this tournament that it's both incorrect and unfair to call a potential victory over Kentucky a gigantic upset based on the talent level, ability, experience, and team chemistry of the two squads on the court.

But it is fair to look at the entire scenario and combination of events that led up to this moment and understand the signifcance.

When an Ivy League school takes on one of the most successful (and richest) college basketball programs in history in the Sweet 16, one has to recognize that a victory by Cornell would be one of the biggest upsets in the history of American sports.


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