Rivals.com College Basketball Staff Writer
Through his interview process at Cornell, Bill Courtney said all the right things.
He won over the university administration and the athletic department through the first round of interviews. He was one of three finalists, and Courtney saved his best pitch for the last group of interviewers: guard Chris Wroblewski, a starter for the defending Ivy League champions, and three of his teammates.
Wroblewski heard whispers from outside the program that Cornell's time was over. The Sweet 16 was nice, but that's as far as the Big Red could go without seniors Ryan Wittman, Louis Dale, Jeff Foote and coach Steve Donahue, who had departed for Boston College.
Courtney, a Virginia Tech assistant, didn't talk rebuilding, though.
"He said 'The Sweet 16 was great; why not Elite Eight?' " Wroblewski said. "He could tell there was talent left."
Maybe he was playing to the crowd, telling eager players what they wanted to hear. At the same time, Courtney has credibility when thinking big.
About seven years ago, Courtney sat in living rooms telling a set of recruits they might have a chance to play in the Final Four.
He was an assistant at George Mason at the time.
"If you say that enough, kids start to believe it," Courtney said.
Courtney left Jim Larranaga's staff a year before George Mason's run to the Final Four in 2006, but he recruited every player except one on that national semifinal squad. He has served as an assistant at Providence, Virginia and Virginia Tech since leaving George Mason, and still has lofty goals now that he has his first head-coaching job.
At the same time, Courtney is realistic.
He said Wittman, Dale and Foote would have been starters in the ACC. Given their experience, Donahue was able to run his system filled with cuts and 3-pointers at the highest level. In the NCAA tournament, Dale darted around standout Wisconsin and Temple defenses. Wittman made "3" after "3." Meanwhile, Foote, a 7-footer, was a safety net on defense.
Most of that core group, which won three consecutive Ivy League titles, is gone. Wroblewski, who averaged 8.9 points last season, is the lone returning starter, and only three returning players - Wrobleweski, Errick Peck and Mark Coury - averaged more than 10 minutes per game last season.
"I don't think you can judge yourself by what those guys did last year because that was a special group," Courtney said. "You have to focus on trying to win the league."
Unlike a handful of coaches taking over a program, Courtney doesn't need to turn a losing culture into a winning one. Under Donahue, Cornell moved from Ivy League bottom-feeder into the conference's top tier. Meanwhile, last season's group could have hosted clinics on team chemistry.
Aside from the freshmen, who are required to live on campus, the remaining 13 members of the team and a team manager lived in the same off-campus house.
That tradition continues this season. With eight seniors gone, 10 Cornell players moved into a smaller house, but the team is intent on recreating the camaraderie of the Sweet 16 team.
"When I got to George Mason with Jim Larranaga, we had to teach guys how to win and perform and behave like winners," said Courtney, who was an assistant with the Patriots from 1997-2005. "These guys understand that already. You can spend more time X'ing and O'ing."
Courtney doesn't expect too many changes on offense from last season, when Cornell led the nation in 3-point field-goal percentage and finished third in 3-pointers per game. On defense, Cornell likely will play more pressure defense.
The challenge will be to tailor the system to inexperienced personnel. Foote's absence also will force some adjustments.
"Steve's teams were up-tempo and averaged 75 points per game and they shot '3s,' " Courtney said. "We'll be up-tempo and shoot '3s.' The way they got their '3s' is a little different, though. Defensively, we may play a little more aggressively in what we try to do. That may be a little a little different."
Aside from Wroblewski, most of Cornell's limited experience is in the frontcourt. A year after the 5-foot-11 Dale ran the point last season, no one on Cornell's roster is listed as shorter than 6 feet.
Coury, a 6-9, 230-pounder who began his career at Kentucky, should have a bigger role after averaging 2.4 points and 2.4 rebounds in 11 minutes per game last season. He had a season-high seven rebounds in a loss to Kansas. He and 6-9, 230-pound forward Aaron Osgood won't replace Foote, but they give Cornell numbers.
Peck, a sophomore forward, was another player who couldn't crack the veteran lineup a year ago. But when he did, he showed glimpses of his potential. In 13 minutes against Syracuse, he had eight points and six rebounds. He scored 13 points in 12 minutes against Bucknell, eight points in eight minutes against Davidson and 14 points in 18 minutes against Dartmouth.
Wroblewski hit 54 3-pointers last season, and is the only returning player with double-digit "3s" from last season. Courtney added junior college transfer Andrew Ferry, who hit 105 3-pointers at Palm Beach (Fla.) State College last season. Ferry, who probably is the front-runner for Ivy League newcomer of the year honors, began his career at Valparaiso.
All the new faces mean Cornell will be something of a mystery early in the season. But Courtney won't have to worry about the team's psyche.
"Every kid on this team is only used to winning," Wroblewski said. "None of us have lost an Ivy League title. I don't say we expect to win it every year, but that is our goal."