Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ithaca Journal Previews Cornell vs. Albany

WHO: Albany (5-4) at Cornell (3-4)

WHEN: 2 p.m.

WHERE: Newman Arena (4,473)

RADIO: WYXL-HD2 (103.3)

ITHACA -- Don't look now, but the Cornell men's basketball team could be in the early stages of a drastic transformation that might leave members of Newman Nation wondering if they've stumbled into the wrong gymnasium.

After a two-week exam break, coach Bill Courtney's squad returns to the court at 2 p.m. this afternoon when it plays host to Albany, with plans of unveiling a newfound strong suit not expected from the Big Red.

"We were able to take a few days off, which I think our guys needed," Courtney said. "The biggest thing we tried to do was maintain the defensive momentum we were starting to figure out. We just want to get better and sharper at that end and hopefully carry it into (today)."

While "3-pointer" is a phrase fans are likely to associate with the Cornell teams of recent past, it is "defense" that has gotten the Big Red to a 3-1 home mark so far. Cornell is limiting opponents to 42 percent shooting and 25 percent from beyond the arc, and leads the Ivy League with 8.4 steals per game.

It was defense that kept Courtney's team from going into the break on a three-game losing streak, as Cornell (3-4) scrapped out a gutsy 81-79 overtime victory against Lehigh on Dec. 3.

A closer look at the Big Red's opening seven games reveals the commitment to defense has not sprung out of nowhere. With a number of key contributors out due to injury, Courtney has had to go to a larger lineup, which altered the team.

"We've become a bigger and more athletic team, which made us a bit better defensively," Courtney said. "As long as we continue to get strong contributions from our bench, which helps the other guys be more effective, I think we're headed in the right direction."

Unfortunately, the news concerning a few of Cornell's injured players is not good. Forward Errick Peck, the team's third-leading scorer last season, remains sidelined with a knee injury, and the 6-6 junior could be declared out for the rest of the year if improvements are not seen soon.

Fellow big man Anthony Gatlin is also a long way from suiting up, although the 6-8 senior has begun participating in practice.

Courtney is adamant about looking forward, however, and believes his team has enough healthy players ready and willing to contribute.

Junior guard Jonathan Gray and sophomore forward Dwight Tarwater are expected to see increased roles, and are two players Courtney says "bring something entirely different and can make you a much more dangerous team."

How dangerous and tough his Big Red are Courtney will soon find out. After today's game against the Great Danes (5-4), Cornell will play five road games in 15 days, including stops at No. 19 Illinois (Dec. 19), Penn State (Dec. 21) and Maryland (Jan. 3). A little over a week after the team visits the Terrapins, the Big Red opens Ivy League play.

"As a coach you always want to win," Courtney said. "At the same time, we have things we want to work on and improve on. You just hope that those are the same things that help you win and prepare you for the Ivy League season."

» Notes: Senior point guard Chris Wroblewski is 55 points shy of becoming Cornell's 24th 1,000-point scorer, and needs three assists to reach third on the school's all-time list. ... Senior guard Drew Ferry has hit multiple 3-point field goals in all seven of Cornell's games, and with five 3-pointers against Lehigh became the 17th player in Big Red history to hit at least 100 3-pointers in a career.

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