March 2, 2011
Southeastern Conference starters don’t transfer to the Ivy League. It just doesn’t happen. So when Mark Coury recruited Cornell after his sophomore season at Kentucky, the Red coaching staff was understandably surprised. The fans were stunned. The media was enthralled. The expectations were inflated.
Mark Coury has always been, and will always be, an energy guy. He’s the type of player who is used to a stat sheet with more blocks and rebounds than points. In the Bluegrass state he was a starter much in the way Josh Figini starts for the Red this year. Coury was on the court for the tip, not because he was the top big man on the team, but because he gave the Wildcats a burst in the opening seconds.
His minutes weren’t starters minutes, but getting the nod 29 times in the SEC says enough to fans who don’t know the whole story. And when Jeff Foote departed Cornell after last season’s award-filled year, Coury - who played second fiddle in the paint during the Sweet Sixteen run - was expected to fill the void.
With every other member of the Red – on the court, the bench and in the offices above Newman Arena – jumping multiple rungs on the ladder, Coury’s transition seemed to be one of the least extreme. Sure, his minutes would double (they didn’t) and he would become a regular in the starting lineup after starting just once the previous year (also not true), but he had played legitimate minutes in a big-time program.
As it turned out, the smooth transition never came. High-major experience didn’t immediately translate into low-major production. It took six games this season for Coury to reach the 20-minute plateau and crack the starting lineup, both benchmarks coincided with an injury to starting center Aaron Osgood. It took another four to reach double figures in either points or rebounds, finding a rhythm at Binghamton with his first double-double since the season opener in his second year at Kentucky. The relative explosion though was bracketed by goose eggs in the scoring column against Minnesota and Bucknell, and any gains were short-lived.
When Osgood returned, Coury’s minutes and numbers fell back to their normal levels. His intermittent positive play seemed more an exception than a rule. Several games saw the big man finish with more fouls than points. Through five Ivy contests he had totaled just nine points and 13 rebounds to go along with 11 fouls in league play. Meanwhile his court time dipped to fewer than 10 minutes per game over the stretch.
After another Osgood injury though, Coury once again became the primary option among a trio of post players. This time the opportunity didn’t escape him.
“He’s played with a great amount of energy and urgency,” Red head coach Bill Courtney said. “Maybe it has something to do with it’s his senior year and with about ten games to go he said ‘hey this is my final turn at it.’ He’s a terrific young man.”
Over the last seven games, Coury has hit double figures on four occasions. He’s averaging close to nine points and better than five boards per contest over the stretch. Because of Osgood’s injury, his minutes are finally where the Red faithful unfairly expected (22+ per game). And in spite of Osgood’s injury Cornell has managed to improve significantly as of late.
“Since we’ve been playing a little bit better, he’s been tremendous,” Courtney said.
Coury is no doubt at the center of that progression.
After an 0-4 start to league play, the Red has worked to a 4-3 record in its last seven games. The run can be largely attributed to a newfound balanced attack. While Figini and reserve forward Eitan Chemerinski have played well for stretches, Coury has been the main factor, giving Cornell interior scoring to pair with the backcourt production of Chris Wroblewski and Drew Ferry.
Last weekend may have been the peak. With 36 seconds on the game clock and a mere tick left on the shot clock, Coury hit the game winner on what seemed to be an impromptu hook from the right baseline.
When asked if going to his senior center was part of the plan on the final play, Courtney found the notion laughable. For Coury it seemed logical that he would end up with the ball in his hands. Top options Drew Ferry (from deep) and Errick Peck (on the lob) were bound to be taken away, the transfer remembered thinking.
"I just assumed that," he said. "I found the open space, got the shot off and luck have it, it went in. But it was kind of planned out in my mind, exactly what was going to happen."
Including Gillispie, Coury has now played under four different college head coaches, a feat nearly as rare as transferring from the SEC to the Ivy’s. And in his final weeks with his fourth coach, Coury has found an offensive rhythm.
The Red have needed a scoring threat in the lane all season, but offense has never been Coury’s m.o. Even as a senior in high school he didn’t average double-digit points. Instead he was a hard worker who scraped for boards and focused on the defensive end.
Over the last few games though Coury has transformed himself into an offensive weapon. He’s not taking different shots than he used to. The almost-awkward, straight-armed hook from the baseline that gave Cornell the victory on Saturday night is one that he’s taken probably 100 times in a Big Red uniform. He’s not knocking them down at a higher clip than before. His shooting percentage has actually gone down over the last seven games. Rather, the difference seems to be in his approach to the game.
“It’s obviously my last year here so I’ve got to enjoy my last couple games,” Coury said. “I’m having fun playing and that seems to be working for me.”
It’s too late for the Red make a push for the league title. In all likelihood, it’s too late even for a top-half Ancient Eight season. Regardless, Coury is finally beginning to fill the unreasonable expectations he’s faced his entire Ivy career. And at this point, it’s nice to see a guy who has often started, but struggled to finish, end with a bang.
“That was kind of the cherry on top of the sundae,” Courtney said with a smile of his senior’s performance at Penn. “I’d love to have the guy for another year.”