The saying “so close, yet so far away” captures the Cornell men’s basketball team’s 2010-11 season, if the object of the phrase refers to contending for an Ivy League championship rather than a Sweet 16 run.
In head coach Bill Courtney’s first year following Cornell’s historic season, the Red won only two of 12 games decided by five points or fewer on its way to a 10-18 campaign and a 6-8 Ivy record, sending the team into the off-season needing to revamp for a second stab.
A strong finish last year provides promise for the 2011-12 season. The Red won six of its last nine games, including the final three contests in late February and early March. However, an eight-game losing streak before the New Year and five straight defeats to begin conference play plagued Cornell’s season, putting the squad in a much different position than 12 months before.
Senior guard and co-captain Chris Wroblewski anchors the team, leading a crop of several inexperienced players. The only current member of the Red who played significant minutes during the three consecutive Ivy League championships, Wroblewski led the team in points (14.7), assists (5.7) and steals per game (1.5) last season.
The other co-captain, senior guard Drew Ferry, ranked second on the team with 11.9 points per contest in his first year since transferring from Palm Beach State, while senior guard Max Groebe pitched in with 6.7.
Lesser-known backcourt players like sophomore guard Jake Matthews and junior guards Miles Asafo-Adjei and Johnathan Gray served primarily defensive roles, using their speed and intensity to try to turn over the opponent — catering to Courtney’s style of coaching. However, the transition didn’t click immediately, as the team averaged only 68.1 points.
“Throughout the season, you’re going to see us pressing a lot more and picking up the tempo of the game,” Wroblewski said. “We want a high possession pace — we want to win, 90-80, in most games. So I think opponents are going to be uncomfortable with how fast the game is.”
With the graduation of forwards Adam Wire ’11, Mark Coury ’11 and Aaron Osgood ’11, the Red frontcourt will undergo turnover for the second straight year. While the trio combined for only 16 points per game, the big men provided a solid interior presence on defense. The Red could be in trouble on the boards, though, as the team averaged only 32 rebounds per game last season before the departure of the trio.
“We’ve been doing a lot of 1-on-1 and 2-on-2 box out drills in practice lately,” said junior forward Errick Peck. “It’s really all about effort as a team and being hungry to go after the ball.”
Junior forwards Josh Figini and Eitan Chemerinski showed potential in limited action last season, averaging 3.2 and 2.2 points, respectively, and they will be expected to pick up the slack in 2011-12. The athletic Peck, who shrugged off a slow start last season to average 11.0 points, figures to play an even larger role this year.
The list of players does not end there. Sophomore guard Dominick Scelfo returns from a season-erasing knee injury, while sophomore forward Dwight Tarwater, junior forward Peter McMillan and senior guard and forward Anthony Gatlin all had flashes of production in 2010-11.
Freshmen guards Galal Cancer and Devin Cherry and freshmen forwards Dave LaMore, Shonn Miller, Nonad Tomic and Deion Giddens contribute to an endless Red roster.
“We are such a deep team — coach [Courtney] isn’t afraid to play 12 or 14 players a game,” Wroblewski said. “We come in waves at you and we’re always pushing the ball.”
While the Red’s depth has not changed since last year, the team certainly hopes its ability to close out games will. A crushing two-point loss on Nov. 19, 2010 to St. Bonaventure — also Cornell’s first opponent this year — was the first of three straight defeats by a margin of five points or fewer for the Red last season.
The team did not regain its composure in tight games until a two-point win at Penn on Feb. 26. Wroblewski and Peck are confident that the squad is better prepared this season to win down-to-the-wire contests.
“We’re a little more experienced this year, which I think you are going to see reflect in wins and losses and how we play at the beginning of the year,” he said. “I have to be a cool, steady hand out there, directing traffic and making sure that during those times of adversity, everybody just calms down and remembers our goals and what our focus is.”
“I think [winning close games] really comes with experience,” Peck added. “We’ve been shooting more free throws in practice, which is important late in games. Not getting the job done and the fact that we’ve experienced the failure side in late-game situations makes us know that we don’t want to be there again.”
Although the Red did not finish games last season as well as it did in 2009-10, Cornell can still hit plenty of 3-pointers to keep the team in games. The club made 251 shots from behind the arc last year (nine per game). Wroblewski connected on a team-best 43.3 percent of his attempts from long range, while Ferry hit 39.0 percent. Peck and Groebe followed at 37.9 and 37.5 percent, respectively.
“[Opponents] are going to have to get up on our shooters — we have four or five guys that can knock it down from 3-point range,” Wroblewski said.
The Red hit 14 shots from behind the arc in a close loss, 71-66, on Dec. 4, 2010, at then-No. 13 Minnesota — one of two nationally ranked opponents that defeated the Red last season. Cornell could face a handful of Top-25 teams this season, as the Red is slated to play at Penn State, Illinois and Maryland over Winter Break. Nonetheless, the team is focused on gaining ground in the Ivy League, not on pulling off an illustrious upset.
“We are very prepared going into the season,” Wroblewski said. “Last year we got off to a slow start, but now we’re all a year older and a year more experienced with coach [Courtney] and his philosophy. I think with that year under our belt, you should see us hit the ground running this season.”
The two halves of senior guard and co-captain Chris Wroblewski’s collegiate career could not be more polar opposites. In his freshman and sophomore seasons, the 6-0 guard from Highland Park, Ill. took a back seat to the outstanding trio of guard Louis Dale ’10 and forwards Ryan Wittman ’10 and Jeff Foote ’10, hitting 3-pointers when called upon. Last year, Wroblewski led the Red in points (14.2), assists (5.7) and steals (1.5), while orchestrating an inexperienced squad and demanding the ball in crunch time — a role he looks to reenact in 2011-12.
“[This year] is a little bit like last year,” Wroblewski said. “My first couple years I stood in the corner and shot some open 3’s — it was so easy because everybody guarded Foote, Witt and Lou. This year I have to take some tougher shots coming off screens and on the move, so that’s something I have to get more used to.”
Wroblewski is also getting used to leading his younger teammates. The guard finished second in the Ivy League in assist to turnover ratio last season (2.1), a statistic that demonstrates his steady presence for the Red.
“My game is pretty standard — I have to be consistent with the ball but not turn it over,” Wroblewski said. “I have to help direct the guys on the floor and also lead by example … come in every day and bring my best.”
Wroblewski has already earned his fair share of awards. No. 3 was the Ivy League Rookie of the Year in 2008-09, a second-team All-Ivy player last season and is now a finalist for the Lowe’s Senior Class Award. Nonetheless, according to Wroblewski, he still has room for improvement. Despite leading the Ivies in steals last year, the sharp-shooter targeted his defensive play over the offseason.
“Not me,” Wroblewski declared emphatically when asked about the team’s best defensive guards. “It puts coach [Courtney] in quite a little bit of a conundrum … You would probably put me in more of the finesse category. Defense is definitely a point of emphasis that I have to work on.”
Guard play will again be the Red’s strength this year, as Cornell returns arguably the best starting backcourt in the Ivy League in senior co-captains Chris Wroblewski and Drew Ferry, while adding two very talented freshmen to the mix.
“[The backcourt] will definitely be our strength … with a lot of experience coming back in Chris Wroblewski, [junior Johnathan Gray], [junior Miles Asafo-Adjei] and myself,” Ferry said. “We have a lot of talented freshman guards as well. I think starting off the year, especially, we’ll have to rely on the backcourt.”
When discussing this team, the conversation should start and end with Wroblewski, who was a second-team All-Ivy selection in 2010-11, leading the Red in minutes (32.7), points (14.2), assists (5.7) and steals (1.5) per game.
However, Cornell’s backcourt is certainly not a one-trick pony. Ferry averaged 11.9 points per game last year, and led the team with 80 3-pointers. Dialing up from long distance will again be a key offensive option for the Red, according to Ferry.
“Our 3-point shooting is definitely a key attribute of our team,” he said. “It’s one of our strengths, and we rely on running out and getting some transition 3’s. I really don’t see that changing this year.”
The Red also possesses many strong defensive players in the backcourt, according to the co-captains, who pointed to Asafo-Adjei as the squad’s top asset in its own end of the court.
“Defensively, Miles is easily our best defender,” Ferry said. “He’s strong and quick and really gets after it defensively. We’re going to rely on him a lot defending the other team’s best guards.”
“I think Miles is the best defensive guard on the team, He’s just so quick — it’s impossible for people to get by him in practice,” Wroblewski added. “[Junior guard Johnathan Gray] is also very versatile [on defense]. He can guard some bigger guys because he’s athletic and longer. [Freshman guard Galal Cancer] is another guy who’s very physical with you, but he’s also quick enough that he can stay with the smaller, quicker guards.”
Gray is currently starting alongside Wroblewski and Ferry with junior forward Errick Peck injured, but even after Peck’s return, he will figure prominently into the Red’s plans; however, few would have expected this two years ago, when Gray was only a team manager.
“[Gray is a] great story. All of the guys on the team love Johnny,” Wroblewski said. “He’s one of those guys who really put in the hard work and never complained about anything … Now it’s finally paying off for him and I couldn’t be happier — nobody deserves it more than Johnny for the amount of work he has put in. He adds a different element to our game. He can shoot the ball really well, is 6-3 and athletic … so he’s a great asset for us.”
The two freshman guards, Cancer and Devin Cherry, will also see some time on the floor this season, according to the co-captains.
“They have an impact every day in practice,” he said. “Galal does everything for us … He’s a guard that can attack the rim more so than Drew or myself. He’s very unselfish so he fits in well with us and makes the extra pass, but he can shoot it too.”
“Devin is a very gifted offensive player. In practice, he’s tough to stop and when he gets going, he can really shoot the ball well,” Ferry added. “This year, they’ll both have opportunities to play. [Head coach Bill Courtney] likes to go deep into the bench, and I’m sure that they’ll be ready for whatever minutes come their way.”
If Cornell plans to make any noise this year in the Ivy League, the team will need all of its guards — both returners and rookies — to step up their games and perform at a high level.
After losing two key contributors from the frontcourt — forwards Aaron Osgood ’11 and Mark Coury ’11 — the Red will need players to step up to fill the void.
Junior Errick Peck is the only returning forward to average more than 10 minutes a game last year. The 6-6 forward recorded 11.0 points and 3.6 rebounds per game in 2010-11 season, but is currently out of the lineup due to injury.
Juniors Eitan Chemerinski and Josh Figini are two players that expect to see a major increase in playing time this year.
“Eitan and I worked really hard over the summer, especially in the weight room, to get a little bigger,” Figini said. “Basically, we have to step in and continue what [Osgood and Coury] were doing, as far as defense and offensive production. We learned a lot from [the seniors] the last couple years, so we’re really excited to show what we can do.”
In addition to the two juniors, sophomore forward Dwight Tarwater, who missed all but seven games last season due to injuries, will help out in the frontcourt. Tarwater has earned a starting spot in the team’s opening games alongside Chemerinski.
“I think he’ll have a really big impact on both ends of the floor,” Figini said of Tarwater. “He’s a really strong kid and a good rebounder. We’re really excited to see how he can contribute to our season this year.”
The freshman class also figures to see extended playing time, and the rookies have been very impressive thus far, according to Figini.
“It’s a really talented freshman class and I really think they’ll have an impact both now and in the future,” he said. “They’re all on their way to developing into really great players and are all great athletes and great fits for our team.”
“They’ve been great. They are learning [the system] … and getting more comfortable in our offense,” Chemerinski added. “They’re big and athletic and I think they will be able to make really big contributions this year.”
The rookie expected to see the most playing time is Shonn Miller, a 6-7 forward who has impressed his teammates early on.
“[Miller] is a really athletic player, but he is also a great shooter and has great skills,” Figini said. “Sometimes you just see really athletic players who can’t shoot or handle the ball, but he can do both. He’ll be able to come off the bench this year and really have an impact.”
One of the biggest weaknesses of Cornell’s frontcourt is its lack of size, as the roster does not feature any players taller than 6-9. The Red will need to rely on a team effort to negate this disadvantage on the boards, according to Chemerinski.
“There’s always a big focus in practice on boxing out and … rebounding [in general],” he said. “Something coaches talk a lot about is group rebounding. We’re going to need the guards to come in and get rebounds as well.”
The forwards will have to exert maximum effort defending opposing frontcourts in order to minimize the Red’s size disadvantage, Figini said.
“It’s just defensive intensity and help-side defense,” he explained. “We’re going to be playing a lot of guys who are bigger than Eitan and [myself] this year, so that just means we will have to work that much harder to stop their frontcourt players.”
Although the guards are still considered the strong point for the Red, the team will need its big men to perform well in order to make any noise in the Ivy League, according to Figini.
“The frontcourt is going to be pretty important to our game,” he said. “It is going to open up the floor [for our team] and our shooters especially.”
Just 10 seconds into Cornell’s second meeting with Dartmouth last year, junior forward Errick Peck slammed home the Red’s first points of the game. Peck went on to have a career game, knocking down four 3-pointers on his way to 22 points, helping the Red to a 20-point win over the Green.
At 6-6, 224 pounds, Peck is a threat on both ends of the floor. Not only was Peck Cornell’s third leading scorer last year with 11.0 points per game, he also led the team in blocks — totaling 19 on the season. After two seasons on East Hill, Peck ranks 16th all-time in Cornell history in blocked shots per game.
Though the Red will certainly need him to produce offensively this season, Peck feels his presence will be felt most on the defensive end.
“I’ve been here for two years now, learned some secrets and tricks of the trade,” Peck said. “I have to use that to do my best on the defensive end to lock down the other team’s best offensive player.”
After the Red struggled last year on the boards, Peck understands that he will need to assist his team as much as possible in the paint.
“I’ll definitely need to help rebound the basketball and limit second chance opportunities,” he said.
Peck averaged 3.8 rebounds a game last year, 33 percent of which were registered on the offensive end.
As a member of the 2009-10 team that reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament, Peck understands what it takes to build a successful team. He was the only freshman to see regular time on the court that year, and played an integral role — averaging 3.3 points per game off the bench.
For Peck, playing with that team was an important learning experience.
“Those guys were so disciplined,” he said. “They showed me that you can’t just show up and use your talent like in high school.”
According to Peck, his experience playing on a team that emphasized hard work above all else will prove crucial now that the junior is a veteran on a young squad.
“They did the little things well, which is something we need to try to do this year,” Peck said of his teammates from two seasons ago. “Playing with those guys helped me just mature as a person on and off the court.”
As a junior, Peck will have to start doing the same for this year’s underclassmen.
“I’ll be as vocal as possible both on the bench and on the court,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to get wins for us this year.”
After Princeton junior Doug Davis’ buzzer beating 12-footer found the bottom of the net, the 2010-11 Ivy League champion was finally crowned. The fact that it took literally every last second of the regular season to decide who would make it to the NCAA Tournament just goes to show the strength of the Ancient Eight in recent years.
“We are on an unprecedented run of quality basketball,” said Cornell head coach Bill Courtney. “You’re talking about a renaissance of the Ivy League, where every team in the league is playing well.”
From top to bottom, each team has a strong crop of players, with eight of the league’s Top-10 leading scorers returning this year. With this in mind, the 2011-12 season looks to be another highly competitive one in the Ivies.
2010-11: 11-17, 4-10 (7th)
The Bears’ roster is devoid of seniors this season, with only five juniors on the 14-man squad; however, Ivy League Rookie of the Year Sean McGonagill returns along with leading scorers Tucker Halpern and Matt Sullivan, who totaled 26.8 points per game between the two of them. Head coach Jesse Agel — entering his fourth season with the Bears — will need to help his freshman class get accustomed to Ivy League play right away. Freshman Christian Gore — one of Agel’s recruits at the guard spot — averaged about 16 points and four assists per game his senior year in high school, and will likely find himself seeing time off the bench for the Bears.
2010-11: 15-13, 6-8 (T-5th)
A first-team All-Ivy selection and three-time conference player of the week in 2010-11, senior guard Noruwa Ago scored 27 and 21 points against Harvard and Princeton, respectively, even though his team was unable to come out on top in either game. With the return of Ago and senior guard Brian Barbour, who averaged 13.3 points per game last year, the Lions have a menacing backcourt that should be able to compete with any in the Ivy League. However, in order to make a serious run, the Lions need 6-9 center Mark Cisco to provide quality minutes in the paint. Cisco showed signs of dominance last year, scoring 10 points and grabbing four rebounds against the Crimson’s intimidating backcourt, and he will need to continue that in order for the Lions to have a successful season.
2010-11: 5-23, 1-13 (8th)
The Green finished its 2010-11 season on an 11-game losing streak, falling by double digit points in seven of those final contests. Fortunately for Dartmouth, the Green returns its Top-3 scorers, including leading scorer R.J. Griffin, who averaged 9.4 points per game last year and scored 15 points in the team’s Nov. 14 season opening loss to Rutgers. The Green may also have a rising star in freshman Jvonte Brooks, who earned Ivy League Co-Rookie of the Week accolades — along with Cornell forward Shonn Miller — for his eight-point performance against Rutgers. Still the Green lacks an explosive player that can consistently score to pull the Green out of the Ancient Eight cellar.
12-2 Ivy (T-1st)
The Crimson may have endured a shocking end to its season in the Ivy League playoff game, but this year’s squad is considered a frontrunner to take the conference title. All six of Harvard’s leading scorers from last season return, including senior forward and co-captain Keith Wright. Wright led the team with 14.8 points per game and was a menace on the glass, grabbing 249 total rebounds. Joining Wright in the frontcourt is 6-7 junior Kyle Casey, who averaged 10.7 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. Senior co-captain and 3-point specialist Oliver McNally, who shot 44 percent from beyond the arc last season, also returns for his final season with the Crimson. With the ability to work dangerously both in the paint — between Casey and Wright — and from the field — with McNally and sophomore guard Laurent Rivard — head coach Tommy Amaker’s squad is making a serious bid for its first NCAA tournament appearance in 65 years.
2010-11 : 13-15, 7-7 (4th)
When Oliver McNally’s jump shot with 11 seconds left sealed the double overtime win for the Crimson, the Quakers thought it was only one heartbreaking loss in a long season. Unfortunately, the game turned out to be the first of three straight overtime losses for the Quakers, exemplifying the disappointing and unlucky nature of their season. With three of their leading scorers returning for the 2011-12 campaign, the Quakers may have a chance to turn that luck around. With the return of leading scorer senior guard Zack Rosen — who scored 27 points in the team’s Nov. 14 overtime loss — and senior guard Tyler Bernardini, the Quakers are not lacking in offense. If Penn’s young forwards can hold their own in the paint and on the boards, the Quakers have a good shot at recording their first overall record above .500 season in the past four years.
2010-11: 25-7, 12-2 (T-1st)
After a jumpshot by senior Dan Mavraides tied the game, 55-55, in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year, it looked like the Tigers might upset No. 4 seed Kentucky; however, a floater by freshman Brandon Knight with two seconds left on the clock shattered those hopes. Despite their first round exit from the tournament, the Tigers enjoyed a dominant season, including a last second win in the Ivy League playoff game against Harvard. Guard Doug Davis, who was the hero in that game, returns as a more experienced senior. Davis is joined by junior forward Ian Hummer, who earned second-team All-Ivy honors last year, averaging 13.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Despite the loss of leading scorer and rebounder, Kareem Maddox, the Tigers still pose a significant threat with Davis and Hummer.
2010-11: 15-13, 8-6
After finishing 12-19 in 2009-10, the Bulldogs were able to rebuild last year to climb above the .500 mark. The Bulldogs also return a solid crop of players, including first-team All-Ivy selection, Greg Mangano, who averaged 16.3 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. The 6-10 senior leads the Bulldogs alongside captain Reggie Willhite, who compiled a career-high 9.4 points per game average last year. The Bulldogs pulled off a one-point win over Harvard last year at home, and played Ivy League champion Princeton to two close contests. While the Bulldogs will likely feel the loss of Porter Braswell’s 10.9 points per game from a year ago, head coach James Jones’ team will have a good shot at pulling off a few more upsets this season.