Friday, November 9, 2007

Ithaca Journal: Cornell basketball preview, Transfer of Power 3 newcomers expected to add punch in Ivy title chase

From left, Jeff Foote, Collin Robinson and Andre Wilkins — all transfers — are expected to be key components for a Cornell men's basketball team that's a popular pick to win the Ivy League title.

Cornell basketball preview: Transfer of Power 3 newcomers expected to add punch in Ivy title chase

ITHACA — The unknowns are what make this Cornell men's basketball team so interesting.

Questions abound for coach Steve Donahue's emerging program, now thrust into the unfamiliar role of Ivy League favorite.

But they're the type of questions no Cornell coach has dealt with since 1988, when Mike Dement led the Big Red to a league championship — the last time a program not named Penn or Princeton won the title. So, are the high expectations legitimate? With backcourt talent converging from all directions, will there be enough shots to go around? What will the rotations look like? What will the chemistry be like? After missing all of last season, how effective can guard Adam Gore and forward Jason Hartford be? With only one senior, is there enough experience to win the critical road games? Will the team rebound enough? Defend enough?

Time will tell.

But the most intriguing question, perhaps, centers around Cornell's trio of transfers — Collin Robinson, Andre Wilkins and Jeff Foote. How will they fit into the picture?

Prominently, it seems.

In fact, Donahue expects the trio will have a hand in many of the answers.

Collin Robinson

Robinson raised a few eyebrows when he announced after the 2005-06 school year that he was transferring to Cornell from the University of Southern California, leaving Tim Floyd's Pac-10 program behind for the frigid winters of Ithaca. Robinson had been considering Boston University and Boston College.

A 6-foot guard with an explosive first step, Robinson provides the Big Red a quick guard who can shoot, slash to the basket, finish at the rim or open up shots along the perimeter. Although he sat out last season under NCAA transfer guidelines, he still practiced with the Big Red on a daily basis and played with his teammates this summer on Cornell's trip to France. Robinson is now considered a regular, even though his first real game action comes on Saturday night in the season opener against Lehigh.

“Our backcourt looks great,” Robinson said. “We're ready to pass the ball if we need to, and at the same time you're confident in passing the ball to a teammate because you know he's going to come through for you. At the same time, you know when you have to be a little selfish when the game's on the line, you can trust yourself to make the bucket because they won't question you, because they have faith in you.”

Robinson hails from Diamond Bar High School in Diamond Bar, Calif., the same school that produced ex-Utah standout Keith Van Horn. As a freshman reserve for the Trojans in 05-06, he averaged 1.4 points and 0.7 rebounds in 3.9 minutes of action.

He'll join a loaded backcourt that includes point guard Louis Dale, sharpshooters Ryan Wittman and Gore, and wing players Jason Battle, Geoff Reeves and Conor Mullen.

Andre Wilkins

Donahue is just happy Wilkins has been able to settle down somewhere.

Wilkins hails from one of the worst neighborhoods in Toronto, where daily stories of drugs, crime and shootings often trump the success stories.

“It's a war zone at 2 in the afternoon,” Donahue said. “It's the worst neighborhood I've ever seen.”

But Wilkins beat the odds, kept his head up and out of trouble and landed at Cornell after a year at Blinn Junior College in Texas. He wound up at Blinn after rescinding commitments to Brown and the College of Charleston because the head coaches at both schools departed just before he arrived.

Ithaca's a different world for Wilkins.

“I've never seen a place so green in my life,” he said. “The people here are different. Things I've never really seen back home. People are never really like, ‘Hey, how are ya man?' whether it's in the dorms or whatever. It's just not like that (in Toronto).”

The immensely-likeable Wilkins has been accepted quickly by teammates, several of whom used the word “energy” to describe what he adds to the roster.

“He's just got endless amounts of energy,” Wittman said. “You see him after practice — we've just gotten done running sprints, and he'll be dunking the ball after practice. He'll be great to have.”

Wilkins is listed at 6-5, 190 pounds, and appears destined to become a Newman Arena crowd favorite. Although his reputation for wild, bring-down-the-house dunks precedes him, he's more than just a high-flying circus act. He defends, rebounds, and gives Donahue a dependable option at the No. 4 spot if and when the Big Red decides to use a smaller lineup.

“He brings us an element that we haven't had here,” Donahue said. “His athleticism and his quickness to the ball, even at his size, he's the kind of guy that can handle the ball and make good plays offensively.

“I'm sure at times it's a big transition to this environment, but he's a real solid person, works hard at his academics, works hard at basketball. He's picked up the structure. We had to wonder how much he'd be able to do within the structure, and he gets it. He's got a great feel for the game.”

Jeff Foote

Those who follow Interscholastic Athletic Conference high school basketball will remember Foote, who graduated from Spencer-Van Etten three years ago as a spindly 6-8 shot-blocking post player.

But after growing several inches, spending a year at St. Bonaventure as a walk-on and another year at Cornell honing his skills at practice everyday, the 7-foot tall Lockwood native has commanded the coaching staff's respect.

“He gets all the credit,” Donahue said. “I think Jeff's done a terrific job working extremely hard and learning. We invested a lot of time, as did he, and it's remarkable where he's come from. Every single day it's like you see the improvement.”

Foote has two and a half semesters of eligibility remaining, and will sit out the first semester of this season's schedule. His first action will come Dec. 19 at Bucknell.

But his impact is visible in practice.

Foote is Cornell's first 7-footer since Marshall Werner in 1993, and even at a slim 220 pounds, he can rebound, get putbacks and, most important, defend the interior with his shot-blocking ability.

“He gives us something we don't have,” Donahue said. “Andrew (Naeve) did such a good job of defending the post and rebounding, I think he can give you that. He's an excellent defender, he runs the floor, he takes charges. So he's similar to Andrew in that sense, but he's 3-4 inches longer.”

Foote has also added significant strength since joining the team, Donahue said.

“He's stronger than he looks,” he added. “He's got big bones. He's had a hard time putting on weight, but our guys have a hard time getting him off the block if he gets it.”

With Robinson, Wilkins and Foote adding different dimensions and intangibles, it'll be up to Donahue to find a way to assimilate the new talent with the bevy of returning talent.

Which may be the biggest question of all.

“They're all good kids, and they all want to win,” Donahue said. “We constantly talk about how unselfish we all have to be in this process if we want to win a championship.”

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