Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ithaca Journal Previews Columbia at Cornell

ITHACA -- Yogi Berra is famously quoted as saying: "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical."

One could say the same of basketball. The physical act of putting the ball through the basket can be practiced for hours, day after day, until it becomes a case of the muscles knowing exactly what to do, and the shots falling like rain.

In practice.

Ah, but introduce the pressure of the bright lights, a few thousand onlookers and a scoreboard that is judge and jury, and the shots that touch nothing but net in practice suddenly are drawn to the iron, the glass and a waiting rebounder.

Cornell men's coach Bill Courtney has seen this phenomenon with his Big Red (6-11 overall, 1-2 Ivy League), which will try to gain a split with Ivy travel partner Columbia when the Lions invade Newman Arena Saturday night for a 7 o'clock tip.

Cornell shot just 34 percent in dropping a 61-56 decision to the Lions last Saturday night in New York. Columbia didn't shoot much better (39.6 percent) but got a big game from 6-foot-9 junior center Mark Cisco, who nearly doubled his season average with 18 points and a Levien Gym-record 20 rebounds.

Columbia won despite a sub-par performance from leading scorer, 6-foot-1 junior guard Brian Barbour, who scored 14 points on 4-for-15 shooting.

Courtney knows his players can shoot the ball well, because he sees them do it every day. But in the games, it's different: The Big Red is shooting 40.9 percent, and 32.5 percent from 3-point range, this season; both the lowest percentages in 10 years.

"It's funny because we tend to make shots all the time in practice," Courtney said Thursday. "We just need to carry it over to the game and shoot with confidence like we do in practice. It'll certainly help if we see a couple go down early in the game."

Despite its shooting woes, the Red was right there at the end of last week's game with a chance to win. With Cornell trailing by two points with 32 seconds left, Cisco nailed two free throws, then Red senior point guard Chris Wroblewski hit a jumper to pull the Red back to within a pair at 58-56, but the Lions made three foul shots in the final 15 seconds, Wroblewski missed a potential tying 3-pointer with nine seconds left, and Columbia held on.

Courtney is happy with the way his team stacks up against streaky Columbia, which started the season with four straight losses but has reeled off win streaks of seven and four games since.

"The match-ups are pretty good for us," he said, "but again the biggest thing is we have to make shots. When you hold you're opponent to 39 percent shooting and hold their best player (Barbour) to 4-for-15 shooting and force 18 turnovers, you have to win that game.

"And if you shoot just a little bit better, you do win the game," he said. "We have to take advantage of our opportunities when we get in transition and when we get open shots and when we get to the free-throw line."

Another area where Courtney wants to see improvement is rebounding, and limiting the second chances the Lions get.

"They got 13 offensive rebounds last time and that's just too much," he said. "We'll have to do a much better job of blocking out, and try to force the tempo. Columbia wouldn't mind to have the game be in the 50s, but we'll try to get in more in the 70s if we can."

To do that, the Red needs to hit those shots that have been falling in practice. Courtney is certain Barbour won't leave the door open again for the Red.

"I doubt he'll have as an ineffective a game as he did last time," the coach said. "(That was) a very good job on our end, but he's a very good player and I'm sure at some point he's going to get going."

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