CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – A road win continues to elude Cornell this season, the latest being a 71-60 setback at Ivy League-leading Harvard on Friday night. It was a game that looked like a microcosm of the team’s season in several respects.
Cornell has struggled offensively all year, and that’s the clearest indication that this isn’t the Big Red of a couple of years ago. That was abundantly clear in the first half on Friday, as they struggled to get anything going and committed several turnovers that were of the costly variety. They weren’t much better in the second half, as their better shooting percentage was masked by more turnovers as well as a few baskets with the outcome not in doubt that made the score closer than it looked.
“We tried to score in transition before the halfcourt defense could get set up,” said head coach Bill Courtney. “It is a problem that we don’t make shots. We know that the way this team is built, if we don’t make shots, we’re going to be in trouble a lot of nights.”
The Big Red haven’t run bad offense, and the feeling is that they have been able to get good shots often. But they have had trouble getting the ball in the basket, as they shoot less than 41 percent on the season and less than 33 percent from deep. Turnovers haven’t been as big a problem, but they were on Friday night and Harvard made them pay for it.
Even with the offensive struggles, the Big Red’s defense has helped keep them in games. The Big Red allow opponents to shoot less than 41 percent from the floor, which is good for third in the Ivy League, and they force a league-high 16 turnovers per game. They defend the three-point line better than any other Ivy League team. The down side at that end is fouling: the Big Red average over 20 fouls per game and allow teams to get to the line more than 23 times per game. That was a big part of how Harvard grabbed the lead in the first half, as the Crimson went 15-18 from the line (they were 29-34 from the line for the game). But when Cornell got them in the halfcourt and didn’t foul, they were often effective.
Cornell has lost only three games by double digits this season, and four losses have been by five points or less. The inability to pull out close games plagued last year’s team, and while this year’s team hasn’t been much better, that isn’t as big an issue this time around. Perhaps the best sign of how competitive this team has been is that during a tough four-game road stretch to close out December, the Big Red lost all four games by single digits, including two by less than five and one in overtime.
“The teams we’ve played on the road are very good,” said Courtney, now in his second season leading the program. “A lot of the times, we’ve given ourselves a chance to win, and when you’re playing a good team on the road, that’s all you can ask for.”
There is some good young talent on this team, and that tends to be what a team looks like in year two of a coaching staff. The Big Red have six freshmen and five sophomores, four of whom have played significant minutes thus far. A couple of their underclassmen have had more limited action or none at all due to injury, and that has also been the case for their most talented player, junior Errick Peck. Peck will redshirt due to a knee injury and come back for two more years, which means they can really build with this core. Peck had a breakout season a year ago with a larger role, and looked ready to contend for all-league honors this season.
Shonn Miller has started 13 games thus far for the Big Red and shown the most promise of the freshmen. He has won the league’s Rookie of the Week four times this season and is third on the team in scoring and leads in rebounding and blocked shots.
“Shonn just adds a different dimension as far as athleticism and altering shots on the defensive end,” said senior guard Chris Wroblewski.
Wroblewski is a key holdover from the championship days, having played a key role on those teams in his first two seasons. With that, it’s fair to say he knows a little about winning. That’s why it’s no surprise that Courtney singled him out in particular for the leadership on the team, especially with the young talent he has and while Wroblewski has had a tough season shooting the ball.
“Chris Wroblewski has done an incredible job of leadership,” said Courtney. “Even when he was playing bad and wasn’t making shots, he was being a great leader and really bringing this team together.”
Cornell has already shown they can be a factor in the Ivy League. The Big Red are unlikely to contend for the title this season, but they are 7-2 at home including a win over Princeton. But Courtney can see this team moving in a positive direction, and you get the feeling that if they get that first road win, it might spur them on to more. As it is, they are likely to be one of those proverbial “teams no one wants to see” down the stretch at home.