Thursday, November 11, 2010

Brian Delaney/Ithaca Journal: Cornell Basketball 2010-2011 Preview

Bill Courtney, in his first year as head coach, will build around junior point guard Chris Wroblewski. Wroblewski started 33 games on last season's Sweet 16 team. "He's very, very hard to take out of a game," coach Bill Courtney said.

ITHACA — Since the Bill Courtney era started with a near four-hour marathon practice on Oct. 15, Chris Wroblewski — who survived that workout unscathed — has spent an inordinate amount of time in Newman Arena on a stationary bike.

First, an inadvertent elbow broke a bone in his nose and forced him to sit out a week. Two days after he returned on Oct. 28, he rolled an ankle in a scrimmage against Colgate.

Courtney hopes, perhaps even privately prays, that Wroblewski's sudden injury woes do not compound themselves in the months ahead. The 6-foot junior point guard is of paramount importance to the Cornell men's basketball team in 2010-11, one season after a 29-5 campaign capped by an unforgettable run to the Sweet 16 under now-departed coach Steve Donahue.

"He's hard to take out of a game," Courtney said. "He's very, very hard to take out of a game."

Wroblewski has started 41 of 65 games as a college player, including 33 last season. As a sophomore on a team that ended the year ranked 17th nationally, he established himself as the Ivy League's most accurate three-point shooter (.454), as well as one of its best decision-makers.

He's a strong defender and reliable free-throw shooter, has proven unflappable under pressure, and was an honorable mention all-Ivy selection last season.

"I think I'm still trying to find (my) role," Wroblewski said. "I've talked to coach Courtney a lot. He definitely sees my role ... as a little more demanding; to look for my shot a lot more. But in doing that, I've found that if I'm more aggressive on offense, I'm looking for my shot and have kind of this instinct to try and find the open man. Even if I'm aggressive, I can always kick it out."

Who will be on the finishing end of Wroblewski's creativity is a question that may begin getting addressed on Friday night, when Cornell opens at Albany (Wroblewski's status is in question because of the ankle injury). Real answers may not be known until two months from now.

Trials and tribulations, as Courtney phrased it, are inevitable for a program regrouping from the graduation of one of the Ivy League's most prolific classes.

Eight seniors departed last May with three league championships, a 47-9 league record, an 88-32 overall record and back-to-back NCAA tournament wins.

The class was so deep, only brief snippets of minutes were available to an overflow bench of underclassmen. For stretches of defense and rebounding, those went to 6-9 forward Mark Coury and 6-5 forward Adam Wire, and less occasionally to 6-6 freshman Errick Peck.

By season's end, the unexpected addition of Jon Jaques into the lineup came at the expense of playing time for Alex Tyler — a near three-year starter at power forward. Max Groebe, a transfer from the University of Massachusetts, contributed almost entirely by impersonating an opposing team's best perimeter shooter in practice.

Cornell's coaches and starters often remarked the scout team was capable of winning league games. This season will judge the accuracy of those theories.

Cornell was picked to finish in third place in the preseason media poll, and for good reason. Not since Princeton in 1991-92 has an Ivy League team been to four straight NCAA tournaments. And no championship team in recent memory has graduated as deep a class as Cornell did last spring.

This year's team is high on intangibles and depth; low on experience.

"What people don't know about our team is we're very athletic, very athletic," said sophomore Miles Asafo-Adjei, Cornell's only other true point guard since freshmen Dominic Scelfo suffered a season-ending injury. "I would even say a little bit more so than last year; we'll get out and run a lot more. We'll be able to pressure defensively."

With the graduation of Tyler and 7-foot center Jeff Foote, Cornell is thin in the middle. Coury returns, but is limited offensively. Senior Aaron Osgood, a 6-9 forward, and 6-9 sophomore Josh Figini are capable of contributing, but how much?

Cornell will miss Foote's shot-blocking and shot-altering ability, and his rebounding.

Defense and rebounding have become Courtney's focal points. The former Bucknell star, and 15-year high-major assistant coach, believes the Big Red can defend at a high level.

"I'm not going to put a ceiling on it," he said. "I think we can be a great, great defensive team."

Like Donahue, Courtney wants to play at a quick pace. Fast-break drills, outlet passes and finishing at the rim are constants at his practices. The three-point shot will remain a fixture.

With Wroblewski, Groebe and junior college transfer Andrew Ferry, Cornell has three pure perimeter shooters. Peck can score from the arc, as can 6-8 junior Anthony Gatlin, the 6-9 Figini and freshman guard Jake Matthews.

Cornell finished last season as Division I's top three-point shooting team. Big Red players expect a high shooting percentage again.

"Their style of play that they used last year, I thought would fit me perfectly with the way I play," Ferry said. "Three-point shooting is kind of my specialty. I think coach Courtney still has that high on his priority list offensively. We have some great shooters, and I think we're still going to utilize that."

If given the choice of beginning his head coaching career with productive experience at one position, Courtney would choose point guard. He has exactly that in Wroblewski.

In Courtney's system, Wroblewski will be busy even when the ball's not in his hands.

"When he gives the ball up in the halfcourt sets, we'll run him off a lot of screens and almost make him like a two-guard once he gives it up," Courtney said. "We've got a whole bunch of things for him to be doing. With almost every single thing we run, he's going to be coming off some type of screen."

Wire said Wroblewski, even in limited practice time, has proven himself capable of executing what he wants to do.

"Especially in the Ivy League, I think he's one of the premier guards," Wire said. "He's shown so far in practice he can pretty much take over the game for himself. When he's healthy and he's playing, he's pretty much doing everything."

With only one other natural point guard on the roster, he has to stay healthy. Do that, and Wroblewski believes the rest of Cornell's pieces — and there's quite a few looking for a home — will fall into place come the opening of Ivy League play in mid-January.

"We're going to surprise a lot of people this year," Wroblewski said. "I think because we're a younger team, it only plays into other people writing us off. It's only going to make us have a chip on our shoulder and motivate us more. Also, everyone on this team doesn't know what it's like to lose. None of us has lost an Ivy League championship, so we know what it takes to win."

Errick Peck is one of Cornell's better passers. Coach Bill Courtney said the 6-6 sophomore is a lock-down defender in the making. Standing behind Peck is freshman Dwight Tarwater.

Cornell's Peck has something to prove Soph adds determination to his impressive tools

Peck in Year 1
As A Freshman
MPG: 7.4
PPG: 3.3
RPG: 1.5
FT%: .741
FG%: .392
3FG%: .333

ITHACA — Bill Courtney has many a superlative to describe Errick Peck's game: athletic, intelligent, explosive, unselfish, affable; a great passer; a good shooter; a good decision-maker; even, more recently, a lock-down defender in the making.

But there's still one accolade that Peck has to yet to earn, though Courtney believes the 6-foot-6 sophomore is on the right path: consistent.

"He's still looking to do that," Courtney said. "He's had more good days than bad. He's shown when he's on his game, he can be as good as anybody in our league."

Steve Donahue said Peck was as talented as any freshman he recruited. Still, that didn't mean Peck saw as much playing time as he wanted. A senior class of eight dictated the direction of last year's team, with inarguable results. The sporadic, limited minutes tested Peck's patience; sometimes the frustration won out.

Now, Peck's says he's stronger and wiser for the experience. He's focused his efforts on the one criticism he, Donahue and Courtney can all agree on: he had to stop taking the occasional play off.

"Trying to get better every single day, that's the biggest thing," Peck said. "Play hard every single play. Because in the past I've taken plays off, or I've had days when I've gotten down on myself, so (Courtney's) trying to keep me confident, keep my motor going. I feel like I can make plays when that happens."

Teammates have raved about Peck's improved work ethic this preseason.

"Errick Peck has been a monster," Chris Wroblewski said. "I know a lot of people may think he's lazy or whatever — I don't know what people have been saying about him, but that couldn't be more false. He's real hungry. He hates to lose, and he's going to be something special for us this year."

If Cornell becomes an Ivy League championship contender this winter despite last spring's massive graduation losses, Peck will be at the forefront of reasons why. He will be asked to rebound, defend good opposing players, create off the dribble, and set teammates up.

"This year, it's kind of a stepping stone in my career, and also kind of a statement," he said. "We have a lot to prove. We have chips on our shoulders."

Peck and Courtney have quickly connected.

"He said I kind of remind him of himself when he was younger," Peck said. "Sometimes immature in the things I do, hard-headed at times, with a lot of talent. He said when he was at Bucknell, he really didn't understand why he didn't play his freshman year, and looking back now he understands."

Courtney told Peck up front he'd be "all over him" at the first sign of let-up. At a recent practice, Courtney caught Peck not hustling back on defense. He made the starting unit run a suicide in 30 seconds. They didn't make it the first two times, so they ran a third.

His teammates could have grumbled, but they recognized the situation for what it was: a maturing player getting rid of bad old habits.

With good days outnumbering the bad, Peck's roommate, sophomore guard Miles Asafo-Adjei, sees a promising year ahead.

"A great one," he said. "He really comes in focused every day, focused on going 100 percent. So that's what we all want to see from him. That's what we talk about every single night, just coming in and working as hard as we can. Right now, he's working hard and I think everybody notices it."

With the goal that, at the end of the season, Courtney can add the most important superlative to that long list: consistent.

Cornell's contingent of big men this season will include 6-foot-9 senior Aaron Osgood, with ball, 6-9 senior Mark Coury, 42, and 6-9 sophomore Josh Figini, right.

Bill Courtney said recently the three players who helped themselves the most this preseason, in the eyes of the coaching staff, were forwards Adam Wire, Aaron Osgood and Josh Figini.

That's good news for Cornell, because the frontcourt is a significant question mark in 2010-11.

Osgood, a shade-under-6-foot-10, 230-pound senior forward, could be the out-of-nowhere component that pushes Courtney into a comfort zone with his thin corps of post players. Bolstered by encouraging words from Steve Donahue after last season, Osgood added muscle and strength over the offseason. He also grew an inch.

"Knowing (who was) leaving, and we don't have a lot of guys at center ... I want to try and be a guy we go to in the post to get buckets," Osgood said. "So yeah, this offseason I worked. I worked hard every offseason, but this offseason was special."

He missed almost two weeks of practice with a hip flexor injury, and has had injury issues in the past, but should be ready for Friday's opener at Albany.

"Since he's been back, he's been tremendous," Courtney said.

Offensively, Osgood probably has the best back-to-the-basket array of moves; followed by 6-6 sophomore Errick Peck. Figini is a developing 6-9 sophomore who prefers to spot up rather than post-up, but is working continuously on the latter.

"(Figini's) really worked hard and kind of earned some minutes," Courtney said. "How many? I don't know."

Courtney also has 6-9 senior forward Mark Coury at his disposal. Coury averaged about 11 minutes per game last year, typically when giving center Jeff Foote a rest. The former Kentucky Wildcat's strengths are defense and rebounding.

But it's been the 6-5, 235-pound Wire who has impressed his new coach the most.

"He's proved he's a guy capable of playing extended minutes because of the things he does that don't show up in the box score," Courtney said. "The way he rebounds, plays defense, gets in the passing lanes — he's a good leader. I think he's really shown me this fall he can step up and become one of our main guys."

Cornell's non-conference schedule is littered with opponents who have quality big men — Syracuse and St. Bonaventure in November alone — but the Ivy League is recuperating somewhat after graduating players like Foote, Brown's Matt Mullery and Princeton's Pawel Buzcak and Zach Finley.

Jake Matthews is a 6-foot-2 combo guard out of the Pittsburgh region.

Cornell's wing-oriented freshmen class of four took a hit during preseason practice when point guard Dominic Scelfo suffered a season-ending tear of his left MCL.

Scelfo, 6-foot-1 from New Orleans, will have surgery to repair the injury over the holiday break in his hometown. It's a similar injury to the one he sustained as a senior at Jesuit High School.

That leaves coach Bill Courtney with three freshmen to integrate into both his system and the college game: 6-2 combo guard Jake Matthews, and a pair of 6-6 wings in Dwight Tarwater and Manny Sahota.

Matthews, from Pittsburgh, could step in for Scelfo as the team's third-string point guard, although he's more suited to playing off the ball. He needs to add weight to his 160-pound frame, though he may see time regardless if Cornell's backcourt depth is tested.

Both Tarwater and Sahota are competing for a spot in the rotation.

"Both guys, I think, have really made tremendous strides," Courtney said.

Tarwater has had to adjust on the defensive end. In high school, he was typically guarding post players instead of small forwards. Sahota's energetic, slashing style has caught Courtney's attention.

"Manny's been a real big-time surprise for us," he said. "Because his energy level has been off the charts every day. His work ethic has been tremendous; he's made shots, he's made plays.

"I think both guys will eventually help us at some point this year, and certainly in the future," he said.

I've been looking forward to speaking with Marlon Sears for some time now, and finally got a brief chance before Tuesday's practice/media availability. Sears spent last season under Joe Jones at Columbia. I wanted his take on the returning personnel at Cornell, considering he was someone who had helped game-plan against the Big Red on two occasions last year. He's an extremely personable guy and appears popular with the players.

Here's a little of what he had to say:

"I think coaches in the league, they honestly thought like, 'OK, this is going to be a chance for guys to take it to Cornell. They're going to be down.' But getting here in the spring, and seeing some of these kids' work ethics, the talent level, you've got to credit Steve Donahue and his staff. They did a great job; that right there says a lot about your program, when you have good players on the bench waiting their turn. That's what's going on here at Cornell.

"From Max Groebe, Chris Wroblewski, even though he played a lot last year, his role was more limited, there's just really good talent on this team."

No./Name Yr. Ht. Pos.
3 Chris Wroblewski Jr. 6-0 G
4 Aaron Osgood Sr. 6-9 F
5 Errick Peck Soph. 6-6 F
11 Max Groebe Sr. 6-4 G
12 Dominic Scelfo Fr. 6-1 G
13 Anthony Gatlin Jr. 6-8 G/F
15 Andrew Ferry Jr. 6-2 G
20 Jake Matthews Fr. 6-2 G
21 Peter McMillan Soph. 6-7 F
22 Miles Asafo-Adjei Soph. 6-2 G
23 Johnathan Gray Soph. 6-3 G
24 Adam Wire Sr. 6-5 F
33 Dwight Tarwater Fr. 6-6 F
34 Josh Figini Soph. 6-9 F
42 Mark Coury Sr. 6-9 F/C
44 Manny Sahota Fr. 6-5 F
55 Eitan Chemerinski Soph. 6-8 F
Head coach: Bill Courtney
Assistants: Marlon Sears, Mike Blaine, Ricky Yahn

Date Opponent Time
Nov. 12 at Albany 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 14 at Seton Hall Noon
Nov. 17 DELAWARE 7 p.m.
Nov. 19 ST. BONAVENTURE 7 p.m.
Nov. 22 at Lehigh 7 p.m.
Nov. 27 at Boston University 5 p.m.
Nov. 30 at Syracuse 7 p.m.
Dec. 4 at Minnesota 7 p.m.
Dec. 18 at Binghamton 2 p.m.
Dec. 20 BUCKNELL 7 p.m.
Dec. 29 VCU Tournament, Richmond, Va. 5 p.m.
Dec. 30 VCU Tournament 5/7 p.m.
Jan. 3 BUFFALO 7 p.m.
Jan. 8 STONY BROOK 2 p.m.
Jan. 15 at Columbia 7 p.m.
Jan. 22 COLUMBIA 4:30 p.m.
Jan. 28 at Dartmouth 7 p.m.
Jan. 29 at Harvard 6 p.m.
Feb. 4 at Yale 7 p.m.
Feb. 5 at Brown 7 p.m.
Feb. 11 PENN 7 p.m.
Feb. 12 PRINCETON 7 p.m.
Feb. 18 HARVARD 7 p.m.
Feb. 19 DARTMOUTH 7 p.m.
Feb. 25 at Princeton 7 p.m.
Feb. 26 at Penn 7 p.m.
March 4 BROWN 7 p.m.
March 5 YALE 7 p.m.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gulp! I noticed Delaney's comment (again) about Cornell's "thin" frontline.

I think his perspective is the problem. He is comparing this year's crew to the now-graduated Foote, Tyler, and Jaques. They formed a stellar front three; there's at least an expectation of a downtick from players like that.

But comparison to the past is not important for 2010-11. It is how we stack up against this year's competition for size, bulk, and athleticism that counts. As noted before, Cornell is right in the mix.