By Sam Aleinikoff
October 15, 2010
The arena is dark and bubbling with excitement. Music is blaring and soon spotlights begin to swirl around the court, each shaded perfectly with the school's logo. The head coach struts onto the hardwood, team in tow, exuding the confidence that can only come from an unbeaten record. Freshly inked recruits watch from the front row, talking to other high school prodigies, all catching a glimpse of themselves a few years down the road. The four letters that signify big-time sports to the world, ESPN, are displayed across banners that hang throughout the building. Fans are packed to the rafters, clapping, screaming, cheering for the squad that they camped out overnight to watch...practice.
It's 12:01 a.m. and the craze that holds the attention of the college basketball world an entire month before regular season games tip off is now nearly 40 years old. Sparked by Lefty Driesell, the idea for a midnight practice sprung from a 1.5-mile run that the former University of Maryland head coach had his team complete just minutes after the NCAA mandated period opened practices for the 1971 season.
The traditions have evolved since the days of outdoor, opening-night, conditioning sessions. In recent years the festivities have come to include slam dunk contests, three point shootouts and, on occasion, a coach dancing for the crowd.
The opener in Ithaca on Friday was a far cry from the modern iterations of Midnight Madness though. And new Cornell head coach Bill Courtney was far from busting a move, instead, he kept his Big Red squad on their toes all night.
Dozens of sprints were sprinkled through a downright exhausting opener, serving as punishment for sloppy play, lack of hustle and losing drills.
"It's a new regime," junior point guard Chris Wroblewski joked between stretches of conditioning.
Sophomore forward Errick Peck agreed. "We came out and had a two and a half hour practice as our first practice last year, but today was an in your face defense, four hour practice, which was pretty crazy."
Peck's time estimate was off by a few minutes, but the practice that got underway sharply at 7:30 p.m. did keep players on the court on well past 11 o'clock.
"We're going to go hard every day," Courtney said. "Now will it be that long? Certainly not. It's going to be hard, but if we're going hard and we do things correctly it will certainly be a lot shorter."
The practice changes extended far beyond added sprints and duration though. Drills had an increased level of intensity and often involved every aspect of a possession except the shot. For those used to Coach Donahue's trigger-happy workouts of old, Courtney offered a new approach.
"There are some slight differences," Wroblewski said laughing, with more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "[Coach Courtney] definitely has an emphasis on defense and rebounding. And I think because we have a little smaller team this year that's important."
"The biggest thing for us is that we want to concentrate on defense, on defensive rebounding," Courtney said. "We did a lot of toughness drills where we kind of had to fight through some adversity and I think that was very important for us to set the tone on the first day."
The new head man also set the tone with his coaching style. After Eitan Chemerinski missed a contested layup, Courtney was quickly on his case, briefly halting practice to get in the sophomore forward's ear. Several minutes later though, Chemerinski grabbed rebounds on three consecutive possessions and again Courtney was fast to react.
"That's Eitan's game," he boomed with as an infectious smile spread across his face.
Between drills, Courtney reminded the Red that they would "play to exhaustion" and had to learn to trust their teammates to step in.
At the end of the marathon practice, it was clear that they had heeded his call. Perhaps the toughest job of the night belonged to trainer Marc Chamberlain who tended to four players - Dominic Scelfo, Aaron Osgood, Max Groebe and Miles Asafo-Adjei - as each sat out at least a portion of practice with what Courtney called "bumps and bruises."
Overall, the new head coach was happy with the effort he saw. "It was very tough on these guys," Courtney said of the first workout. "I commend them for the job they did."
Lefty Driesell would have been pleased too. As the last players filed out of Newman Arena the clock read 12:01 a.m. On Friday, practice kept players at the court past midnight, and that truly is madness.