By Brian Delaney
December 27, 2010
Perhaps no sentiment better described the difficulty of playing the 2009-10 Cornell men's basketball team than the words of Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, spoken before the Badgers' NCAA second-round tournament game against the Big Red in March.
"I got some messages from some coaching friends who said, 'A coach's worst nightmare is to prepare for this Cornell team in one day,'" Ryan said. "They've played together so long and in such competitive environments with pretty much the same players, not just this year but over the past few years, their timing and how synchronized their offense is on their reads, it's as good as any team I've seen. And I've been around a couple years."
About 24 hours later, Ryan's words rang true in the wake of an 87-69 loss to Cornell. The Big Red executed its offense at an off-the-charts level that day in Jacksonville, shooting 61 percent as a team and ringing up 87 points on what was, at the time, one of Division I's top defenses. The reward was a trip to the NCAA Sweet 16, a feat not before accomplished by a non-scholarship Ivy League team in the era of the three-point shot.
At the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, in front of a crowd dominated by Cornell fans, the Big Red's season ended with a 62-45 loss to a Kentucky team that would, a few months later, set a record with five players being selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. Weeks after that, when the final 2009-10 national rankings were released, 29-5 Cornell was voted the 17th-best team in the country.
The architect of that memorable run was Steve Donahue, who spent the 1990s grinding his way up the coaching ladder in his native Philadelphia area for an opportunity to run his own program. A coach who, in his early volunteer coaching days under Fran Dunphy at Penn, sold paint on the side to scratch a few bucks when he could.
Twenty years later, his mentality had changed little. Donahue was a blue-collar coach that connected with players, fans and alums, earned their respect and then delivered for them in the largest of ways.
For all that his team accomplished over the 2009-10 season, Donahue was selected as The Ithaca Journal's 2010 Kenny Van Sickle Male Coach of the Year. He also won the honor in 2008, after the first of his three straight Ivy League championship seasons.
"The alumni interest in our basketball program and in Steve Donahue's leadership has been strong for at least the past five years and probably before that, but certainly within the last year and in the NCAA run, the interest and appreciation for what Steve did for our program was over the top," Cornell director of athletics Andy Noel said last March, just before Donahue was hired away to the land of major conference basketball by Boston College of the ACC. "Steve did it the right way from the very beginning. He never yielded, and ended up with a group of players that took the country by storm."
There was little question that Cornell was the most physically talented Ivy League team over the past few years. But that didn't make Donahue's job easier in certain aspects.
Princeton and Harvard fielded strong squads and joined Cornell in giving the Ivy League three 20-win teams for the first time in 2009-10. The Tigers were a top defensive team that lost a pair of three-point games to the Big Red. Harvard, coached by gifted recruiter and former Duke standout Tommy Amaker, was led by the sensational Jeremy Lin, now a member of the Golden State Warriors in the NBA.
Cornell ensured it would live up to its lofty preseason expectations when it won back-to-back road games against those two teams last February — on the heels of its lone league loss suffered on a Friday night at Penn.
"Unfortunately in college basketball, the difference between winning and losing, even when you're the best team in the league or the worst team in the league, is not that (big)," Donahue said. "So if you don't play really well, and play your game and do the things that you have to do whether it's the level intensity, defense, execution ... you're not going to win."
More often than not, with Donahue making the decisions, this Cornell team won. Consider:
* Beginning with the 2009 NCAA tournament game against Missouri, Donahue paired point guard Louis Dale with a second point guard, Chris Wroblewski. For Cornell, it meant consistent ball security and an inability for opponents to focus on getting the ball out of Dale's hands. For Geoff Reeves, it meant a reduced — but no less important — role that the 6-4 swingman embraced.
* When it was clear that the addition of senior Jon Jaques to the starting rotation made the Big Red a more difficult team to guard, Donahue stuck with the 6-7 sharpshooting senior at the expense of playing time for another senior. But interior post player and three-year starter Alex Tyler handled the transition without creating turmoil.
* Cornell beat a number of higher-profile opponents along the way, beginning with the season-opener at Alabama, a successful trip to UMass and a win over St. John's at Madison Square Garden in December. But it was a high-profile loss, a 71-66 defeat to No. 1 Kansas in early January, that awakened the country to the Big Red's potential.
* Cornell was one of the most efficient offenses in college basketball. It led the country in three-point shooting (.429). But the system was played through 7-foot center Jeff Foote, whose passing and decision-making ability were rare for a player of his size and mobility.
* Cornell ended the Ivy League's 12-year winless streak in the NCAA tournament with two victories, beating nationally ranked Temple and Wisconsin by double-digit margins. Not since the 1997-98 Princeton team had an Ivy school won in the Big Dance.
Donahue spent 10 years at Cornell, and four years went into molding the Sweet 16 team that won over the hearts of college basketball fans. By the end of the run, he said he could go the rest of his coaching career without leading a group as special as that one.
"A strength of this team was its consistency," he said. "Whether we were home versus a Division III team, whether we're on the road against Kansas, I just thought this group was very mature in their approach to every game, especially the senior class. Very rarely (was) I disappointed in their approach."