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Courtney readies for first season at Cornell men's hoops helmAs the Big Red basketball team gets ready to take the floor again, there are many reasons to hope that Newman Nation is --Êdespite the loss of eight seniors -- ready to rock again. To expect Cornell to return to the Sweet 16 or win 29 games again would be an unfair expectation, but the Red is in a good position to win its fourth consecutive Ivy League title and battle its way back into the Big Dance.
I sat down with new head coach Bill Courtney and, while this is his first gig as a top dog, he brings a lot of hoops IQ to the table. He played at Bucknell and was a two-time First Team All-Patriot League selection. He went on to play for a paycheck, suiting up for the Philadelphia Spirit of the USBL, the Milwaukee Bucks summer league team and for two seasons in Hong Kong.
Courtney's first coaching jobs were at the high school level, then he moved up the ladder to land assistant coaching positions at American University, Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth, Bowling Green, Virginia Tech and George Mason University. GMU made it to the NCAA Final Four in 2006, and Courtney was credited with making very significant contributions to that effort.
When Courtney was hired as Cornell's 21st head coach, he replaced Steve Donahue, who held the job for 10 years and left for Boston College last spring as one of the most talked-about basketball masterminds in the country. Taking a team of non-scholarship players to the Sweet 16 was a phenomenal achievement and Donahue was a beloved figure here in Cornell country. Courtney has nothing but positive things to say about his predecessor and appreciates the opportunity to take over a program that was in such fine shape.
I told the new coach that, while I was sure he did his research before taking the job, such transitions often hold surprises. What, I asked, surprised him most?
"The biggest surprise was how talented these guys are, given how much we lost," Courtney said. "This is a group of really tough kids who want to keep winning."
I asked him to share his thoughts on the fact that many of his top players have a lot of playing time under their belts.
"That is a plus," he said, "and I'm finding that even the guys who didn't play a lot are better off for having practiced against guys like Jeff Foote, Ryan Wittman and Louis Dale."
We discussed the fact that the coach has straddled the two worlds of scholarship and non-scholarship programs.
"For us, it's about finding that student athlete that values a world-class education, and judging by the success of the last few years, that student will also have the opportunity to play basketball at a very high level," he said. "When you look at the benefits of that education over the course of a lifetime, it can sometimes be more attractive than a scholarship, and we have many parents who are able to see that."
He also pointed out the advantage of playing on a team that will be intact for four years, given that players do not bolt for the NBA after a year or two.
"These teams are seeing more success," Courtney said, "by having the opportunity to build chemistry over the course of a few seasons."
As for coming into a program that is already at a high point, Courtney told me, "It's a big advantage when you don't have to change the culture. These kids all want to win, they know what it takes -- during the season and the off-season -- all they know is winning. They know how to win, and they expect to win."
Thus far, the new coach likes what he sees, and is readjusting to the climate, having spent the last few years in Virginia.
"Well, I'm a warm weather person, but you know, we play indoors," he laughed. "It is a joy to meet these players, and to have some very intelligent conversations. I am really enjoying this time so far. These are some very special kids."
- The Heights of Boston College writes of Eagle freshmen, Danny Rubin and Gabe Moton:
Both players were recruited by [Steve] Donahue while he was still the head coach of Cornell University. As the recruiting process went on, their contact with Cornell waned as the two explored different options, until Donahue was hired by BC in the beginning of April.
Donahue said that he and his assistants spent hours reviewing hundreds of transfers and freshmen who were still unsigned. Donahue stated that he even had a few players visit the campus to whom he later declined to offer a scholarship. The coach emphasized that finding a quality kid was just as important as finding one with skills on the court, which came out as he got to know the players he was recruiting. Luckily for Donahue, Rubin and Moton were still available.
"I didn't know he was coming here, and I was still in the process of finding a school," Rubin said. "He called me out of the blue pretty much."
With Rubin locked down, Donahue turned his attention to adding another player. By the time Donahue called Moton in May, the guard had already verbally committed to the Air Force Academy, but Donahue persuaded him to visit Chestnut Hill.
"I had already visited, just committed [to Air Force]," Moton said. "Then that same week, Donahue just randomly called me because he had been recruiting me at Cornell, I guess he needed a point guard. He randomly called me and was like, ‘I need a point guard.'***
"I think it's important that at Boston College, we get kids that have the same academic goals as [the students] do," Donahue said. "I think Danny and Gabe are two of those guys, and the guys we're going to bring in next year, you're going to see, these are kids that I would have recruited at Cornell and Penn, yet they can play in the ACC."
- SB Nation writes of Donahue and B.C.:
In 10 seasons at Cornell, Donahue had an overall record of 146-138 and 78-62 record in the Ivy League. His stay at Cornell was highlighted by his final three seasons, when he led the Big Red to 72 wins and only 21 losses.
Cornell finished first in the Ivy League and made the NCAA tournament in each of those seasons. Donahue gained national attention last year after he guided the Big Red to an appearance in the Sweet Sixteen before losing to No. 1 Kentucky, 62-45.
"It is," Donahue said when asked if last year's team was one of his best memories at Cornell. "But what I take out of it was an incredible journey. I enjoyed my teams, even early on when we were struggling. I almost appreciate those guys more than I do the most recent in the sense that they really helped me build this program. We got better every year if you look at it."
The Big Red struggled mightily in Donahue's first two seasons, going 7-20 in the 2000-01 season and 5-22 in 2002-03. His third season was not much better, as Cornell finished in a tie for firth in the Ivy League with a 9-18 record.
In the 2003-04 season, Donahue finally notched his first double-digit win total, leading Cornell to an 11-16 record.
And just like Donahue said, his teams got better from there on out.
In the '04-'05 campaign, Cornell was 13-14. In 2005-06, the Big Red posted a similar 13-15 record. In 2006-07, Donahue led Cornell to a 16-12 record. After that, Cornell rattled off its three straight tournament appearances, ending with last year's convincing tourney run.
"We had great kids and I learned a great deal about how to coach and get the most out of kids," said Donahue. "I think it's going to help me down the road (at Boston College) in terms of building a program the way I want to build it."
- In discussing Harvard's sophomore class, Brandyn Curry told the Crimson, "We’ve got a year under our belt. We’ve been through it all. We’ve played tough games. We played UConn, Georgetown, and Cornell. So we’ve been there. We’re not freshmen anymore.”
- In previewing the Ivy season, the Harvard Crimson writes:
Despite climbing from a 6-8 conference record in 2008-09 to 10-4 last year, the Crimson was once again unable to claim the Ivy League title, finishing in third place in the Ancient Eight standings behind Cornell and Princeton...
The Crimson will have to surpass Cornell and Princeton, as well as a much-improved Penn team, in order to claim its first-ever conference title. Both the Big Red and the Tigers finished ahead of Harvard in last year’s standings, as the Crimson went winless against the pair—its only Ivy losses.
Though Cornell is the three-time defending league champion, the Big Red lost three first-team All-Ivy players in center Jeff Foote, guard Louis Dale, and forward Ryan Wittman, the Ivy League Player of the Year. Cornell should remain competitive with the return of junior guard Chris Wroblewski and the development of sophomore forward Errick Peck, but most media outlets are not anticipating a fourth straight title for the Big Red.