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Cornell’s future can only be better

March 2, 2014 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – There are still two games left, but Cornell’s 2013-14 season will be ending after them. There won’t be any postseason play, and the only possible drama – that of whether or not the Big Red would win a Division I game this season – was removed two weeks ago when they beat Dartmouth. So at this point, maybe a look ahead is warranted, because this season will go down as one to forget.

The season was already going to be a tough one before it began. They had already lost a lot from a year earlier just from the senior class. In addition, Shonn Miller, their best player, suffered a shoulder injury late last year that had not healed well, and redshirting was possible. As the season is almost over, we know that has happened. They lost two more starters they didn’t expect to as well, so this team was basically starting over.

“I don’t think anybody expected it to be this rough,” said head coach Bill Courtney. “We knew we could have some struggles in losing Shonn (Miller), but also in losing Galal Cancer and Errick Peck to Purdue.”

With that adversity came opportunity, as is often the case, and a couple of players have noticeably seized it. Nolan Cressler and Devin Cherry stand out in that regard. Certainly, some of their improved numbers comes out of necessity, but they also took advantage of the opportunity and have grown overall.

Cherry has almost doubled his scoring from last season, and while his three-point percentage is down from last season his overall shooting percentage is up. He has also greatly improved his assist and turnover numbers, as he had almost twice as many turnovers as assists in his first two seasons but now has more assists than turnovers – and nearly three times as many assists as he had a year ago. Cressler, meanwhile, has nearly doubled his scoring. While his three-point shooting has gone down, it’s still a healthy 36 percent, and his overall shooting numbers are not down much.

The freshmen have shown promise, although the most promising of them, Robert Hatter, has come down with mono. It started when he hurt his groin, then felt ill. He’s the only true point guard they have in the program, and he had been pressed into a big role earlier than the staff probably wanted to. As such, he certainly had some ups and downs, and now they hope he will get well in time to get into a significant number of postseason workouts. They have also seen improvement over the season from guard Darryl Smith, who led them with 14 points at Harvard on Friday night, and big man David Onourah has also developed. The next thing for Onourah to improve on is staying out of foul trouble so he can get more experience.

Next year, the Big Red get Miller back. Add him to the aforementioned emerging supporters, as well as the freshmen who now have a year under their belt, and this team has to be ready for a good leap. Cherry and Cressler haven’t gotten better only because someone had to step up, and that bodes well.

“It’s a process for us,” said Courtney. “It’s not just a this year process, it’s a process for the whole program for the next few years.”

Call it youthful exuberance, or something else, but one thing that the adversity and the losing hasn’t done is break the players. Coaches always hang on to losses longer than players, and perhaps there’s a degree to which that has helped this team. A couple of early losses in games that were there for the taking may have eroded the confidence a little, but it didn’t change the effort.

“Those kids have kept us up because of their attitudes and the way they’ve reacted to the adversity,” said Courtney. “They’ve been strong through it all. We’re down a few guys now, but the guys are still together, they’re still working, still fighting. I love coaching this group.”

The Ivy League looks to be in an up cycle, as several young teams appear to be on the rise. Harvard will still be a contender next year, and Princeton will still have plenty of veteran talent although they will lose their best player. Yale remains a consistent top-half-plus team, while Brown has good young talent and Dartmouth has a few good classes put together but has been hampered by injuries this year.

So while Cornell will have a lot returning, that will be the case in an improving league. As such, the jury is out on whether that will translate into contention. We will have eight months to speculate on that starting in about a week.

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