Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mid-Major Madness: Cornell

This is the second in a series we have began running again here at March Madness All Season. We did it last year from late January to the end of the season. "Mid-Major Madness" is simply a weekly column chronicling the small-conference sleepers that I feel have the best shot at pulling an upset or two during the NCAA Tournament. The only real criterion is that a team has to be a projected 11 seed or lower in the Big Dance and from outside the major conferences. We looked at all the non-BCS conferences and teams two weeks ago, but these are the real sleepers for March. Two Weeks Ago: Siena. Next Up: Cornell

After the past two seasons, when it rolled through the Ivy League and won its automatic bid, Cornell came into this year as the heavy favorite to win the conference and potentially throw a scare into a first-round opponent. Many people, including yours truly, felt that the Big Red were the best Ivy League team in years. While they have hit some bumps this season, this team still has all the pieces to pull a first-round upset.

Cornell started off the season in impressive fashion, heading on the road and beating Alabama and Massachusetts. However, the Big Red then slumped, losing by double-digits in back-to-back games against Big East clubs Seton Hall and Syracuse. Cornell rebounded by winning nine in a row, including a solid win at St. John’s in December. It set up a surprising showdown against No. 1 Kansas on the road. Not many people gave Cornell a chance, but the Big Red put the rest of the nation on notice, losing by just five. With Harvard playing well, some thought that Cornell might have trouble winning the Ivy – not so much. The Big Red have beaten the Crimson twice by an average of 14 points, although they did suffer the biggest upset of the season, losing at Pennsylvania by 15. As it stands, Cornell is 9-1 in the conference, 1.5 games ahead of Princeton, and 23-4 overall.

For the Big Red, it all starts in the frontcourt. 6-6 senior Ryan Wittman is one of the best three-point shooters in the country, hitting better than 41 percent from behind the arc in each of his four season in college. He can fill it up in a hurry, and has hit at least three three-pointers in 16 games this season. Wittman also doesn’t fall off when going up against good teams – he is averaging 20.0 points against Alabama, Seton Hall, Syracuse, St. John’s and Kansas. He is very efficient from the field and can also score inside the arc. to him is a luxury at the mid-major level – a 7-foot center. Senior Jeff Foote is a go-to big man who is second on the team in scoring, while pacing the squad in rebounding and blocked shots. Foote has racked up eight double-doubles this season, although he hasn’t scored more than 11 points since February 6 and has been somewhat inconsistent in Ivy League play. With that said, Foote is a very effective player from the field who dominates the defensive glass. He is also not afraid of contact down low. Jon Jaques has started 17 games at the other forward position, providing excellent three-point shooting (47 percent) and solid scoring. Off the bench, Cornell has plenty of options. Errick Peck is instant offense in limited minutes, while Alex Tyler has been solid when given the opportunity. Former Kentucky transfer Mark Coury also sees minutes, and Adam Wire is decent on the glass.

The backcourt is not too shabby, either. Another senior, Louis Dale, leads the way on the perimeter. Dale is a solid three-point shooter who has started heating up in Ivy League play. In conference games, Dale has upped his scoring average to 13 points per game, while also continuing his solid distributing numbers. He has passed for at least five assists in 13 different contests this season, and is also decent defensively. Starting next to him is Chris Wroblewski, who is second on the team in assists and is another player who is shooting at least 40 percent from three-point range. Wroblewski has cooled off considerably in conference play, though. After scoring in double-figures eight times in the first 12 games, he has only done it three times since then. Sixth man Geoff Reeves is one of the most effective offensive players in the country, ranking No. 8 according to Ken Pomeroy’s offensive rating. He takes care of the ball and plays solid defense. Like several of his teammates, he is a gunner – Reeves knocks down 44.4 percent of his threes. Max Groebe averages only seven minutes per game, but he also averages four points.

Cornell is a very experienced team that has been to the NCAA Tournament two seasons in a row, and brings back many of the same key players from those groups. Offensively, the Big Red prefer a half-court contest, taking advantage of their outstanding three-point shooting ability. They rank second in the country in three-point percentage, hitting 42.5 percent of their outside attempts, and also get 38.1 percent of their points on three-pointers. Cornell ranks No. 6 in the country in effective field-goal percentage, and also take care of the ball and share it well. Defensively, they control the glass and force teams to take difficult outside shots. The Big Red don’t allow many second chances and play the passing lanes well. Their man-to-man defense has allowed more than 70 points just eight times this season. On the negative side, Cornell is susceptible to bigger teams who can defend the perimeter well. If the Big Red aren’t hitting threes, they are in for a long day offensively.

Cornell is going to be a team no one wants to see opposite them when the NCAA Tournament brackets are released on Selection Sunday. The Big Red have a host of three-point shooters that can get hot from deep and make life miserable for an opponent. Furthermore, they have something that not many mid-majors – or anyone in general – has: a very good seven-footer. With Foote down low and Wittman filling it up from the outside, Cornell has good inside-outside balance. A team that isn’t comfortable in the half-court and doesn’t have dominant inside players will be the perfect match-up for Cornell. Fortunately, several teams likely to be seeded four through six fit that mold. Look out for the Big Red in a few weeks. 

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