ITHACA -- Ready or not, here it comes.
After a turbulent and often-frustrating first half of the season, the Cornell men's basketball team begins Ivy League play this weekend when it welcomes co-defending conference champion Princeton Friday night and perennial contender Pennsylvania Saturday to Newman Arena.
Both games begin at 7 p.m.
If Big Red coach Bill Courtney still has any questions as to where his 5-9 squad stacks up in a much-improved and balanced Ancient Eight, this weekend will go a long way in answering them.
"It's a different Ivy League," Courtney said. "All the teams are very, very good. I'm not sure exactly where we stand, but I do know we'll have a chance in most games. Hopefully, we can pull some of the close games out and take advantage of the opportunity to have two very good teams at home this weekend and perform well."
Princeton (9-7) opens conference play having won eight of its last 10 games after starting the season 1-5. After winning last season's Ivy League automatic bid to the NCAA tournament by defeating Harvard in a playoff game, the Tigers lost to eventual Final Four participant Kentucky by just two points.
Leading the Tigers are 6-foot-7 junior forward Ian Hummer, who's averaging 17.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists, and senior guard Douglas Davis, who's chipping in 13.8 points per game.
The biggest concern for Cornell will be Princeton's size; the Tigers' rotation includes 6-foot-9 junior forward Mack Darrow and 6-10 freshman Denton Koon.
"With Cornell, you have a team that shoots the ball very well and is patient on offense," said Princeton coach Mitch Henderson. "We are bigger, so we'll have to use our size to our advantage, but that means we're going to have bigger guys guarding some of their smaller guys at times and we'll have to do a good job of keeping our body in front of them."
Penn (7-8) is led by senior point guard and early Ivy League Player of the Year candidate Zack Rosen, who averages 19.1 points and 6.2 assists.
The Quakers also have had their struggles on the glass this season, although they have two more double-digit scorers in sharp-shooting senior guard Tyler Bernardini (15.2) and sophomore guard Miles Cartwright (10.6).
After being decimated by injuries and illness in the first half of the season, Cornell is looking for some improved chemistry and consistency from a group of players Courtney says is "continuing to acclimate to each other."
The Big Red has already lost 74 player games due to injury, and will be without starting guard and junior defensive specialist Miles Asafo-Adjei for at least the first half of conference play due to a leg infection.
The result of those injuries has been a rotation of players of vastly different experience levels, from four-year starters to freshmen, all of whom Courtney now has the task of turning into a legitimate conference contender.
"Blending this group together has been our challenge," Courtney said. "We have a whole bunch of different dynamics on our team, but we're seeing a lot of signs of this group coming together."
Of Cornell's veterans, senior guards Chris Wroblewski (9.4 points, 5.6 assists per game) and Drew Ferry (13.8 ppg.) will be counted on to provide some much-needed leadership while setting the pace offensively.
Freshman forward Shonn Miller and rookie guards Galal Cancer and Devin Cherry also feature prominently in Courtney's rotation, but the play of big men Eitan Chemerinski and Josh Figini may ultimately determine the team's success in conference.
Chemerinski and Figini have had a tough time gaining Courtney's full confidence, averaging just a combined 14.2 points and 5.3 rebounds for a squad that has been outrebounded in 13 of its first 14 games.
While Cornell's stats are not eye-popping, its small-ball style has yielded some positive results at times, especially at home, where Courtney's squad is 5-1.
Defensively, Cornell is forcing an average of 16.9 turnovers in its last 13 games while limiting opponents to just 27 percent shooting and 5.1 field goals from beyond the arc. Unlike its opponents, the Big Red has made a living at the 3-point line, burying at least seven 3-pointers in 13 of its 14 contests.
Cornell's next two weekends will be the home-and-home series with Ivy travel partner Columbia. The Red travels to New York on Jan. 21, then hosts the Lions a week later.