Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Around the Rim with Brian Delaney and the Ithaca Journal

By Brian Delaney
Ithaca Journal
January 18, 2011

One of the marquee signs of a struggling basketball team is the repetition of mistakes. For Cornell, there's been zero improvement this season in the area of foul control.

The Big Red (4-11, 0-1 Ivy League) cost itself dearly Saturday at Columbia when its most three physical big men, Aaron Osgood, Mark Coury and Adam Wire, each picked up two fouls and were forced to sit for the stretches of 9:59, 11:21 and 6:25, respectively, in the first half.

Cornell coach Bill Courtney said after the game he didn't want to risk putting any of the three back in before halftime: he felt the likelihood of them picking up a third foul was too strong.

When Wire -- the last of the three -- subbed out, Columbia led 19-18. By halftime, the deficit was 37-23. Cornell eventually lost, 79-75.

Columbia made 22 of 26 free throws, on the strength of 23 Cornell fouls. Thirteen were committed in the second half, at what seemed like the most inopportune times.

Cornell thought it would be heading for a defensive stop before, boom, another whistle.

"We have to play defense without fouling," Courtney said.

The issues began on the perimeter. Columbia's guards were successful at penetrating and forcing Cornell's interior players to react. Point guard Brian Barbour was 7-for-7 from the line, and off-guard Noruwa Agho was 7-for-10. They combined for 45 points.

"Brian Barbour was very important for them because he did a great job of getting into the lane and drawing fouls," Courtney said.

Cornell hasn't been this foul-prone, statistically speaking, in 16 seasons. The 1994-95 team coached by Al Walker, which finished 9-17, averaged 24.6 fouls per game. Opponents averaged a ridiculous 31.5 free throw attempts per game.

The 2010-11 squad, through 15 games, has averages of 21.6 and 25.7, respectively. Those are well above Cornell's averages of the last 15 years, and are having a direct impact on outcomes as Courtney continually has to shuffle the lineup. As of Sunday's results, they were the worst such numbers among Ivy League teams.

Although it would be easy to point at Cornell's difficult non-league schedule strength as a weighted factor (playing teams with bigger, faster players), the numbers remain high against opponents of a similar ilk.

Columbia was the latest example.

The Lions visit Cornell at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. They'll try to attack Cornell with the same vigor they displayed Saturday night. It'll be Cornell's task to match that aggressiveness, but do so without the hacks. In its four wins, Cornell's foul average has been 16.

Against the Lions, that would be an immeasurable help.

Ivy notes

* Harvard has two players ranked in the top six among Division I's top free throw shooters. Through Sunday's games, junior Oliver McNally was ranked second overall (.943), and freshman Laurent Rivard was ranked sixth (.930).

As a team, Harvard ranks No. 2 in Division I (.805).

* For the second straight week, Columbia's Noruwa Agho and Yale's Greg Mangano split the Ivy League's player of the week. Agho dumped 25 points on Cornell Saturday night, while earlier that day Mangano, a 6-foot-10 junior center, went for 23 points and 17 rebounds in the Bulldogs' win over Brown. He's now averaging a double-double on the season.

Through 10 weeks, only one senior -- Princeton's Kareem Maddox, who did it twice -- has won or shared a player of the week award.

That leads to a scary thought: in one of its strongest seasons to date, top to bottom, the league is only expected to get better.

* Cornell sophomore Errick Peck quietly put together one of his most efficient offensive efforts of the season Saturday in New York.

The 6-6 forward scored 14 points on 7-for-12 shooting over 33 minutes, to go along with six rebounds and a career-high three blocks. For the first time in 11 games, however, Peck did not attempt a free throw.

* Cornell's rebounding splits against Columbia were odd: the Big Red had a season-low 12 defensive rebounds, but grabbed on the offensive end. They didn't make enough of the extra opportunities, though, scoring just 16 second-chance points.

* Brown picked up a quality 87-78 win Monday over Quinnipiac (12-5), which owns wins over Rhode Island and Boston University (and a bad loss to Bryant). Sophomore Tucker Halpern scored 26 points and grabbed 12 rebounds for the Bears, who outrebounded Division I's top rebounding team, 35-33.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad Delaney wrote this... it's been a problem for the team all year (and wasn't a strength last year). It's so frustrating to watch, especially when it leads to teams getting in the bonus way too early. Then when you continue to make silly reach in and over the back fouls you're giving up easy points. And some of these players seem like they have no idea on how to play defense when they have fouls on them.

Just staying in position and putting your hands in the air, forcing the opponent to make a shot is a better alternative, even if there's no foul trouble.

Anonymous said...

It seems obvious that Cornell's defensive strategy is to closely guard and put pressure on the ball at all times, no matter who is guarding the ball. Naturally, a closely guarded player will instinctively respond to that intense pressure by driving to the hoop. That is when the Cornell on-ball defender is holding or clutching, or when others who help on penetration (usually the Bigs) are fouling.

Most teams that play this style of defense have great athletes (with great feet) across the board. If you play that style of defense, you cannot hold, clutch or use an arm bar when your opponent drives to the hoop. That style of defense also requires your Bigs to have the discipline not to foul when they help. As coaches like to yell, "hands straight up", but of course it is easier said than done.

What's odd is that most teams that employ this style of high ball pressure defense also tend to press alot, but Cornell does not seem to press much.

Anonymous said...

I'm also glad Delaney wrote this.

I was surprised to hear Delaney say, in that halftime interview with Leonard, that he thought Courtney was a "great basketball mind". He had often tweeted that he didn't think Courtney's strategies worked.

Courtney’s emphasis on defense resulted in Cornell leading in stats such as steals and turnover margin. But there are numerous fouls that are just plain dumb.

Also, while we focus on solving our bigger problems – fouling and inconsistency from the bigs and bench – let us not take the smaller, more fixable ones for granted. We are last in free-throws. When I see that the number of free throws we missed are 2x or more the margin by which we lost the game, it’s clear that smaller solvable problems might ultimately have been the difference between a demoralizing L and a confidence-preserving W that would allow us to work on our bigger problems with less mental baggage.

Anonymous said...

I also kinda worry that the team might be turning a corner and that dwelling too much on what they've done wrong might hurt that. Despite his missed FTs, I saw for the first time why Miles got minutes. I thought maybe I hadn't seen it all along but nope, his two steals at Columbia were actually 1/3rd of all the steals he's had all year. Jake Matthews also continued to improve. The non-Osgood bench, who had contributed a combined 1 point in each of the last two games, contributed 8. Columbia was not a good game but please don't let it cause bad feelings that spill into the next one. If the team needs to call in that Hawk guy (or was it Falcon?) to get them focused, please do whatever it takes.

Even when they were still growing, the class of '10 had such an intense determination to get better after each loss. They didn't shrug "tough loss" and tweet about football. I remember reading somewhere that Coach D wouldn't even let them watch TV if they lost a game. But it was not dwelling on problems, it was a kind of anger/determination to work as hard as they could to ensure that it wouldn't happen again, and they would often brutalize whatever team they faced next.

Anonymous said...

Anyone wonder if they are getting away with fouls on defense in practice? If Courtney is preaching hard defense in practice, his definition of a foul is probably way more lenient than the ref's. So, they do in the game as they do in practice, only this time, the refs call it.

Anonymous said...

noticed in a Columbia player's post-game interview that Wrobleski was scouted very effectively. They knew well how to undermine his shot and it worked very well. Makes me wonder how well our team is scouting and how much practice time is spent with White Team role play? Sometimes it just looks like they don't know what to do.