Friday, January 14, 2011

Ithaca Journal Previews Cornell at Columbia

By Brian Delaney
Ithaca Journal
January 14, 2011

ITHACA -- There's little debate, as far as Cornell's players and coaches are concerned. The Big Red's path through the Ivy League men's basketball schedule will be dictated by the play of its frontcourt: particularly, seniors Aaron Osgood and Mark Coury.

Stats can be used to twist truth. For Cornell coach Bill Courtney, there's no twist to this truth: Cornell is 4-2 this season when Osgood, Cornell's athletic 6-foot-9, 235-pound center, scores at least nine points.

"There's no question," Courtney said. "When we can establish something in or around the basket, it certainly gives us better balance with our offense. If we get him and Errick Peck playing together at the same time, that's when our offense is at its best."

Osgood missed nearly a month with a knee injury suffered on Thanksgiving Day. He returned with brief appearances against Binghamton and Bucknell, but wasn't fully healthy. In Cornell's last four games, he's been productive in spurts, including a strong second half that helped the Big Red beat Stony Brook last weekend.

On Saturday, Osgood and the Big Red (4-10) open Ivy League play at 7 p.m. at Columbia's Levien Gymnasium. Cornell has won nine straight in the series, and 14 of 16.

"I think a lot of it is confidence," said Osgood, who has started six of his 11 games and averages 8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. "When I have better games, I get a lot of touches early. Whether that's off a pick-and-pop or dribble handoffs, just touching the ball and getting in the flow better. When I don't score, it feels like I'm just trying to force. I just have to let the game come to me."

Columbia is one of the Ivy League's biggest teams. First-year coach Kyle Smith's rotation includes 6-9, 245-pound sophomore Mark Cisco; 6-6, 245-pound senior Asenso Ampim; 6-7, 220-pound sophomore John Daniels; 6-7, 225-pound senior Brian Grimes and a pair of 7-footers, Max Craig and Zack Crimmins. Not surprisingly, the Lions (9-5) are an excellent rebounding team.

"They get a lot of offensive rebounds every game," said Coury, a 6-9 senior known more for defense and rebounding. "They've got a lot of talented big guys down low. So we have to be mentally prepared to box out every play. Make sure we check their guys, give no easy post touches. We don't want them to get comfortable down low."

Cornell remains one of the weakest offensive teams in the country inside the three-point arc. That's where improved play from Osgood can help.

"I just have to have that confidence that I can score on anybody," he said. "I know I can; it's just a matter of doing it. And once you start, keep doing it."

They key in Ivy play will be positioning. After two good games to start the season, opponents adjusted by muscling Osgood off the low block. He'd then catch the ball too far from the basket to be effective.

"With the Ivies, the bigs are really physical," he said. "Even if they're not 6-10 and athletic, they're still going to be working hard down there."

Peck, Chris Wroblewski and Adam Wire all used the same word to describe a productive Osgood's importance to Cornell.

"Huge," Peck said. "First of all, we're getting killed on the offensive glass, so for him to be able to go down there and get us those rebounds so we can push -- it'll flow into what we want to do in the first place, which is run. Two, he can score with his back to the basket. Three, he can get them into foul trouble."

If Osgood can regularly give his team that type of effort, the wins will follow.

"Oz is a big key," Courtney said. "He needs that mindset of having tremendous confidence and knowing he's one of the better frontcourt guys in the league. He knows he can be a really good player. ... If he approaches it like 'I'm an all-league caliber player,' that kind of mindset, then I think he can have a tremendous Ivy League season."

Matchup: Cornell (4-10) at Columbia (9-5), 7 p.m.

Radio: WVBR (93.5). Online: Follow Brian Delaney's in-game twitter updates (@BDelaneyIJ) at

Coach: Kyle Smith (1st season, 9-5)

Last time out: Columbia beat Division III Union, 64-59, on Saturday to improve to 9-5.

Probable starters: Brian Barbour (6-1, 175, Soph., G), Noruwa Agho (6-3, 220, Jr., G), Steve Frankoski (6-2, 175, Fr., G), Asenso Ampim (6-6, 245, Sr., F), Mark Cisco (6-9, 245, Soph., F).

Key reserves: Zack Crimmins (7-0, 235, Sr., C), John Daniels (6-7, 220, Soph., F), Van Green (6-3, 185, Fr., G), Dyami Starks (6-2, 195, Fr., G), Max Craig (7-0, 260, Sr., C)

Statistically: Agho averages an Ivy League best 16.4 points per game. He also averages 5.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists. ... Starks is shooting .432 from the three-point arc. Agho and Frankoski both shoot .390. ... Columbia is 6-1 at home. ... Columbia ranks third in the Ivy League in field goal percentage (.449), and seventh in field goal percentage defense (.452). The Lions rank last in the league in three-point field goal percentage defense (.393), and first in offensive rebounding percentage (.362). ... In two games against Cornell last year, Agho scored 15 points on 5-for-23 shooting.

Outlook: For Cornell, the keys to playing Columbia are fairly clear, but may be difficult to execute consistently: keep the Lions off the offensive glass, defend Agho into an inefficient night offensively, and get out in transition as much as possible.

Both these teams get fluctuating production from the bench, and both coaching staffs mix and match different personnel. Physically, Columbia may be the Ivy League's biggest team. That could be problematic for Cornell. On the other hand, the Lions have struggled to guard the three-point line, which is the Big Red's strength.

Judging by national ranking systems, these two teams break down fairly evenly. Expect the home-and-home series to be close, entertaining, and full of swings.

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