Many things have to break just right for an Ivy League team to not only jump onto the national stage but play well once it gets there.
Cornell coach Steve Donahue had done a wonderful job of putting together a strong program, to be sure. The Big Red has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in their third straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament and will try to pull an upset for the third straight round tonight when they face top-seeded Kentucky in the semifinals East Regional semifinals at Syracuse.
Cornell (29-4), despite being a No. 12 seed, has already disposed of fifth-seeded Temple 78-65 and fourth-seeded Wisconsin 87-69. Now, the Big Red will try to take down a Kentucky team that includes two top five NBA Draft picks in freshman point guard John Well and freshman center DeMarcus Cousins while junior forward Patrick Patterson could also go in the lottery.
Cornell's players profess that they, too, have dreams of playing in the NBA. Most likely, though, they will use their Ivy League educations to make their mark in different endeavors than professional basketball.
Regardless, Cornell truly believes it can knock off Kentucky (34-2). The Big Red have believed they could play with anybody ever since taking Kansas to the wire on the road before losing 71-66 on Jan. 6. The convincing victories last week only reaffirmed that belief.
"For us to win this game, we need to be the team making plays," Donahue said. "That may sound strange, but we need to be aggressive, even if that means making some mistakes and allowing them to get some points in transition. I know my team. If we're making plays and we're attacking the rim and we're making stuff happen on both ends of the floor, that's when we play well. If we come out and we say we're going to hold the ball because they're rally athletic and they get up and down, we're not going to play well. We have to be the aggressor."
The disparity in pure talent between Cornell and Kentucky can be summed up in the story of how some of their best players were recruited. Wall literally had his choice of going to any school in the country and Cousins wasn't very far behind. On the other hand, Big Red point guard Louis Dale had to send videotapes to various schools just to get a Division I look and no one was recruiting center Jeff Foote until his mother, a nurse, met Donahue while former Cornell player Khaliq Gant was in an intensive care unit of a hospital recovering from a broken neck sustained during a collision in practice.
Dale is averaging 12.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 28.3 minutes a game while ranking 39th nationally with a 33.2 assist rate. Foote's line is 12.4/8.1/2.3/27.7 and he is 17th in effective field goal percentage (63.3), 30th in defensive rebounding percentage (25.2), 43rd in true shooting percentage (63.0) and 63rd in block percentage (7.7). Those two are seniors along with Cornell's best player, forward Ryan Wittman, who has averages of 17.8/4.0/1.8/33.7 while ranking 44th in effective field goal percentage (60.3), 53rd in true shooting percentage (61.1) and 66th in offensive rating (119.9).
"What we try to do is find kids who aren't necessarily great as 18-year-olds but have a little vision of what that young man will be when he's 21 or 22," Donahue said. "Mostly, it's strength, it's size, it's quickness, if you can anticipate someone like a Ryan Wittman growing three inches and putting on 25, 30 pounds. That's what he did and he became a very good basketball player. The same think with Jeff Foote.
"The other thing is we try to get kids people overlook and try to do it as hard as we can. These are easy things but they take hours and hours and hours of trying to find guys that people overlook. I think Louis Dale is a great example of that. For whatever reason, maybe size, maybe he went to a small school, maybe he's such a nice kid that people didn't think he could compete, which is bull, but that's how you end up with kids like him."
Huskies Take the Long Route to Syracuse
At the start of the season, it would have come as no surprise that Washington would be in the other East Regional semifinal, playing West Virginia tonight. The Huskies were a consensus Top 25 team and expected to battle with California for the Pac-10 championship.
However, Washington has taken a circuitous route to the Sweet Sixteen. The Huskies had a disappointing regular season and likely wouldn't have made the field of 65 if they had not won the Pac-10 Tournament. However, Washington is rolling now as nine straight victories, including wins over Marquette and New Mexico in the first two rounds of the NCAAs, have ran the Huskies' record to 26-9 and gotten them this far despite being a No. 11 seed.
So what has turned Washington from being one of the season's biggest disappointments to one of the hottest teams in the country? Coach Lorenzo Romar feels his team was probably a touch overrated in the preseason and needed time to jell.
"For one, we've matured," Romar said. "Our team has one senior. Everyone else is coming back next year. I think it just took us a while to kind of understand one another and understand the level of commitment it takes to be successful. We do have a lot of returnees but we also lost Jon Brockman, who is now playing in the NBA with the Sacramento Kings, and Justin Dentmon, who is now playing professionally in Israel. Those were all-league performers and not as easy to replace you might think."
The inside-outside tandem of senior forward Quincy Pondexter and sophomore guard Isaiah Thomas has been tough for teams to stop. Pondexter is averaging 19.7/7.5/1.7/32.4 while standing 39th in the country in offensive rating (123.8) and 88th in true shooting percentage (61.3). Thomas' line is 17.1/4.0/3.1/31.1
Bryant Sidelined for Remainder of NCAAs
West Virginia might have a hard time matching up with Thomas after losing sophomore point guard Darryl "Truck" Bryant for the remainder of the tournament with a broken foot. Bryant and West Virginia's trainers aren't exactly sure when Bryant suffered the injury but he began feeling pain early in the Mountaineers' victory over Missouri in the second round on Sunday.
Bryant switched shoes at halftime, going from LeBrons to Huarches. That didn't help, so Bryant played through the pain. When he began to feel pain again Tuesday during practice, he was X-rayed and the break was found.
"It's tough because, of course, I want to play," Bryant said. "The lights are on. It's a big time of the year. I just wanted to be a part of it. I believe in my team, though, and I know they'll get it done."
Bryant finishes the season with a line of 9.3/2.2/3.1/24.3 Second-seeded West Virginia (29-6) will now call on junior guard Joe Mazzulla to play defensive stopper against Thomas.
Coaching Rumor Mill Update
The coaching rumor mill continues to be abuzz with the following reports and rumors:
- Auburn is on the verge of hiring Tony Barbee away from UTEP to replace Jeff Lebo, who was hired at East Carolina on Monday.
- Siena's Fran McCaffrey is reportedly at the top of Seton Hall's list while Robert Morris' Mike Rice and Vermont's Mike Lonergan have also interviewed. Rice can be prone to outbursts on the bench and that could hurt his chances at Seton Hall in the aftermath of Bobby Gonzalez's stormy four-year tenure as coach.
- St. John's is making a big play to lure Paul Hewitt away from Georgia Tech. Already making contingency plans, Georgia Tech is said to have McCaffrey at the top of its list of potential replacements.
- Ben Jacobson's name was scratched from Iowa's list when he signed a 10-year contract extension at Northern Iowa on Wednesday. Wichita State's Gregg Marshall and Utah's Jim Boylen have come to the fore as leading candidates to land the Hawkeyes' job.
- Boise State is being forced to look in a different direction after Weber State's Randy Rahe signed a seven-year extension Wednesday. It appears former Montana coach Larry Krystkowiak is the new favorite.
- The Central Florida job is there for the taking for Appalachian State's Buzz Peterson. Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua is the fallback plan.
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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