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January 7, 2010
How Good is Cornell?

by John Gasaway

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For a while last night it looked like Cornell was going to do the unthinkable. The Ivy League’s best team (maybe--see below) had traveled to Lawrence, Kansas, to take on the number one-ranked and undefeated Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse, where Bill Self’s team has a 50-game winning streak.

And yet the Big Red led Kansas, albeit narrowly, for the entire second half until the final four minutes. Steve Donahue’s team had KU playing like a scared and endangered favorite in a first-round tournament game. At one point in the second half a full seven and a half minutes elapsed between made Kansas field goals. The Jayhawks ended up winning 71-66 (seven of KU’s last nine points came on Sherron Collins free throws) but, as our friends in the United Kingdom like to say, this game was no oil painting.

Give credit for KU’s ugly performance (Collins notwithstanding--he had 33 points) to Cornell, a team that now has an impressive collection of wins and even losses under its belt. The Big Red has notched road wins at Alabama, UMass, Drexel, Bucknell, St. John’s, and La Salle, a home win against Saint Joseph’s, and a neutral-floor win over Davidson. Their three losses have been to Seton Hall, Syracuse, and, now, Kansas.

Like any team with a good record, Cornell has been not only good but also fortunate. Before last night Ryan Wittman, Jeff Foote, and company were 7-0 in games decided by single-digit margins. Still, the Big Red has come by today’s tributes honestly. This is an excellent offense, one that, much like William & Mary, has been shooting lights-out from beyond the arc this season.

For a mid-major that makes its threes, however, Donahue’s team is laudably ill-served by the standard-issue Cinderella-team stereotypes. For instance unlike the aforementioned William & Mary group, Cornell doesn’t necessarily seek to hold the number of possessions in a game to a bare minimum. Donahue’s group won’t be confused with a fast-breaking team like Texas anytime soon, but when they get the look they want they’ll take the shot, even if it’s early in the possession. Wittman is something like a more perimeter-inflected and Ivied version of Xavier Henry, a player who makes an uncommonly high proportion of his shots from both sides of the line. And seven-footer Foote may not have been poetry in motion last night, but he’s put up impressive numbers thus far against competition that overall is actually superior to what he’ll see in conference play. He figures to make himself heard in the upcoming Ivy race.

Last night’s robust performance at Kansas vaulted the Big Red all the way from 83 to 67 in colleague Ken Pomeroy’s Pythagorean win percentage ranking. That may not sound terribly earth-shattering but it’s better than 60 percent of the Pac-10 can currently claim. More to the point, anything in the 60s or even 70s in Ken’s metric at the end of the regular season would distinguish Cornell as pretty clearly the best team that the Ivy League has produced in the last seven seasons.

Unless of course this year’s Harvard team earns that same distinction.

Best teams comprised of future investment bankers
Ivy League teams’ highest Pomeroy Pythagorean win pct. rankings, 2004-10

              Pythag rank   NCAA seed   W-L entering NCAA 
Harvard 2010       63           ?               ?
Cornell 2010       67           ?               ?
Penn 2005          83          13             20-8
Penn 2004          92        no bid          (20-7)
Penn 2006          97          15             20-8
Cornell 2009      104          14             21-9 

So, yes, circle your calendar: January 30, Harvard at Cornell, and February 19, Cornell at Harvard.

No Ivy League team has won an NCAA tournament game since Princeton advanced to the second round as a five-seed in 1998. Can Harvard or Cornell break through in 2010? The odds are still long, but after a decade of even longer odds, Ivy fans will be forgiven for their newfound optimism.

Being the highly educated fans they are, however, those Ivy boosters will want to fortify that wholly legitimate optimism with that hearty fare known as reality. Harvard and Cornell look like they may well be historic in Ivy terms, but in D-I terms this means simply that right now they’re more or less statistically equivalent to the likes of Rhode Island, Missouri State, Oklahoma State, and Virginia. Again, that’s self-evidently outstanding for a league that prohibits athletic scholarships. Nevertheless you non-Ivies in the crowd may want to think twice in nine weeks before you join the fashionable office memethink that will almost certainly have either the Crimson or the Big Red reaching the second weekend of the tournament.

Without any of us meaning for it to be so, it’s been Ivy week here at Prospectus. On Monday my colleague Kevin Pelton sang the praises of Harvard. As for Cornell I will say simply that their performance to date, up to and including taking Kansas to the final minute of the game at Allen Fieldhouse, has far exceeded their advantages. If they can make a little noise come March, all the better. If not, they’ll always have Lawrence.

John often talks about the one Cornell grad he knows on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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