By Brian Delaney
1160 ESPN Radio
October 21, 2011
ITHACA – A casual spectator would have walked into Newman Arena late Monday night and found the Cornell men’s basketball team engaged in a spirited, up-tempo practice. A casual spectator with a trained basketball eye would have sworn it was a workout for guards and small forwards only.
The thought would have been incorrect, but no less valid.
Instead of drawing water from the same well of optimism that other college basketball teams and coaching staffs do every October, Bill Courtney can only speak in doses of pessimism.
“Right now, my problem is we’ve got so many guys hurt,” he said.
Courtney has a league-high 21 players, but his is an unbalanced roster to begin with, one that’s been rendered further lopsided – positionally speaking – by a rash of injuries. Courtney has one natural center: 6-foot-9, 230-pound freshman Dave LaMore. On Monday, LaMore (ankle sprain) was riding a bike alongside 6-6 junior Errick Peck (knee) and 6-7 freshman Shonn Miller (stress fracture), part of a group of six players on the injury report. Seniors Anthony Gatlin (knee), a 6-8 forward, and Max Groebe (hamstring), a 6-3 guard, are ailing, and sophomore guard Dominic Scelfo (knee) is partaking in only certain drills.
The common thread is injured size. Cornell will be one of the Ivy League’s least smallest teams in 2011-12, and four of the aforementioned injured could play at least a hybrid version of the power forward position. The lack of depth leaves Courtney perilously thin inside, particularly with St. Bonaventure and 6-9 NBA prospect Andrew Nicholson on tap for opening night Nov. 11.
“That’s the challenge,” Courtney said. “That is the biggest challenge for our team, and we talk about it every day in different ways. As someone once told me, there’s a lot of ways to skin a cat. We’re going to have to figure out different ways to guard people every night. The biggest thing every night is we’re going to have to not allow the ball to go inside.”
First, stating the obvious. Harvard, with Tommy Amaker recruiting a higher level of basketball student-athlete, has positioned the Crimson as overwhelming favorites for the league championship in 2011-12. It would be stunning (considering the Ivy League does not have a conference tournament) if the Crimson did not reach the NCAA tournament.
The flip side? Cornell has no pressure, no expectations from the outside to finish any higher than middle-of-the-pack in what may be the Ivy League’s strongest year, top to bottom, in the modern era.
Courtney, thusly, is creating as much physical competition at practice as possible.
“We’re going to have to be tough; we’re going to have to have a gang mentality when it comes to defense and rebounding,” he said. “We’re going to have to be the toughest team out there.
“There is really a lot of competition among those spots from six to 19,” he added. “There are going to be spots open and available as guys get healthy.”
Some notes, quotes and observations from multiple practices:
- Wroblewski spent the offseason recovering from a hip injury he suffered during Christmas break practices last year. He played the entire Ivy League season with a torn labrum, but opted not to have offseason surgery.
- One of the most oft-asked questions every October: who clearly had a great offseason? Couple of candidates. The coaching staff loves how 6-6 sophomore Dwight Tarwater has played early on; with all the injuries, he may be your starting “four” on opening night.
“Dwight is going to be critical for us,” Courtney said. “He’s a guy that can play multiple positions. He looked like he did a lot over the summer as far as improving his game. His shot is more consistent, and what we’ll do more than anything is ask him to rebound the basketball.”
Tarwater played in seven games as a freshman, before mononeucleosis ended his season. His playing time may hinge on his defense, an area he was asked to improve.
Wroblewski lauded Chemerinski’s improvement, but said his list included “a bunch” of players.
“Eitan, I’m telling you. Eitan is going to have a breakout year. I think he’s just become more comfortable with being physical down there,” Wroblewski said. “He’s always had the skills around the basket, and he can finish now.”
One small thing Chemerinski does very well: hedge on high ball screens. For a team that plans on pressuring opponents quite a bit, you’ll likely see Chemerinski’s quick trapping ability lead to several turnovers and fast breaks the other way.
It’s been a tough few months for Errick Peck, who injured his knee playing in the summer and had a minor surgical procedure done in July. “Something with his knee, where he had chipped a little bit of cartilage off. I’m not sure if I’m saying that correctly, but he did something where they had to flush it. Now it was minor surgery, but he hasn’t gotten back to 100 percent yet. So we’re kind of still waiting to see where he’s at,” Courtney said.
There’s no denying this is a blow for both Peck and his teammates. Every Ivy League team save Princeton should be improved this season. If Cornell’s improvement is to outstrip its peers, Peck’s progress is paramount.
... Miller is sidelined with a stress fracture, and may not be ready until the end of November.
... Gatlin had similar surgery to Peck’s, though his procedure was in September. Time table isn’t known just yet.
... Groebe’s still a couple weeks away from overcoming a hamstring pull. The concern going forward will be the threat of re-aggravation.
... LaMore sprained an ankle last weekend, and may miss a week or two.
Courtney said freshmen guards Galal Cancer and Devin Cherry, in the pursuit of playing time, must focus on defense.
“They have to start by making themselves terrific defenders,” Courtney said. “Part of that is understanding how much effort it takes to be a terrific defender. Both those guys have the physical capabilities, but it’s going to be the mental side of things, learning rotations and where to be and learning how to use their athleticism to help them become great defenders.”
- Wroblewski is going to play much more off the ball this season. It should keep him fresher, and put him back to his natural position (Even in high school, Wroblewski didn’t play point guard.) The senior guard offered a reminder not to overlook the potential contributions of junior Miles Asafo-Adjei.
“I think everyone’s overlooking him,” Wroblewski said. “We have a ton of talented guards. Galal, yes. Devin, yes. They can handle the ball and let me play off it, but Miles too. He’s been in the program the longest out of any other guard. He knows the system, he was here last year, he’s quick, he can beat guys off the dribble. I think him more than anybody can help me a lot.”
- Senior Drew Ferry and junior Johnny Gray have looked sharp early on. Both in play for big-time minutes.
- Scelfo’s jumper is smooth. If he can get full confidence back in his knee, he can help. In short bursts, it’s easy to see him as a great fit in Steve Donahue’s system. Can he find a place in Bill Courtney’s?
- Freshman Deion Giddens is raw. On offense, he’s essentially starting from scratch. His will be a two-year process to get where he needs to be. Some good news, though. His work ethic is excellent, and he’s shown the ability to take an elbow to the mouth, spit up some blood, then immediately move on and continue playing. Coaches love that.
- Courtney likes 6-7, 250 pound freshman Ned Tomic, but Tomic needs to get into better shape.
“Biggest thing is him having to figure out what kind of shape he needs to be in,” Courtney said. “He’s a thick kid, which is different from the guys on our team. He has some bulk to him, which will help in rebounding and help us in establishing post position and those types of things. But you can’t do that if you can’t run up the court consistently.
“I wouldn’t say out of shape,” Courtney continued. “But not in college shape. You can say that about a lot of the freshmen. They are not in college shape. Ned has a ways to go before he gets into college shape.”
- Hard not to like Galal Cancer and Devin Cherry, even with only a few practices booked. Cancer is physically ready to compete, without question. He has the build of an upperclassman. Both Cancer and Cherry are super-explosive for this level. Down the line, that should form a tremendous backcourt for Cornell.
- The Red-White Scrimmage is at 4 p.m. Saturday at Newman Arena.