By Ed Boulat
ITHACA -- Four games into its Ivy League campaign, the Cornell men's basketball team already has faced a unique set of challenges -- and that's not including the schedule.
The Big Red opened conference play three weeks ago by hosting defending co-champion Princeton and perennial contender Pennsylvania, followed by a home-and-home series with travel partner Columbia the last two weekends.
After two wins and two losses, Coach Bill Courtney's squad now faces its latest Ancient Eight hurdle: a weekend road trip with stops at nationally-ranked Harvard Friday night, and its near-opposite Dartmouth on Saturday.
After an almost month-long stay in the AP Top 25, the Crimson (18-2, 4-0 Ivy League) finds itself ranked 23rd in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, and winner of six in a row and nine of 10. The Big Green (4-16, 0-4), on the other hand, is last in the conference and has lost nine of its last 10 games.
While the odds point to Cornell exiting the weekend with its .500 conference record intact, Courtney is emphatic that his squad is taking no win or loss for granted, especially considering the Big Red's 0-9 road record this season.
"There's no weekend we go into hoping to get a split," he said. "We go into every game expecting to win, game-planning to win. We'll take each game individually, and when the buzzer sounds at Harvard we'll start preparing for Dartmouth."
Cornell will face one of the stingiest defenses in the country, and a Harvard team that has already defeated Florida State and Boston College this season. Harvard held its first four Ivy League opponents to just 44.7 points per game. Offensively, Harvard is paced by junior forward Kyle Casey (11.0 points per game), one of three players in double figures.
"We're going to have to figure out a way to score against them," Courtney said. "You look at their defensive record, giving up under 40 points to opponents, those are incredible numbers. ... We just have to find a way to put the ball in the basket."
One positive for Cornell is the recent play of senior point guard Chris Wroblewski, who despite struggling with his shot this season poured in 19 points on 5-for-8 shooting (4-for-6 on 3-pointers) in Cornell's 65-60 win over Columbia last weekend.
"Chris shooting it like that makes us exponentially better," Courtney said. "He's already our leader, and when he's playing well and playing with confidence, it gives everybody confidence."
Another source of buoyancy for the Big Red is its own defensive track record. Cornell has held seven of its last nine opponents to less than 40 percent shooting and forced an average of 14.7 turnovers in their four conference games.
One big reason for those numbers is freshman forward Shonn Miller, whom Courtney calls "as good a defender as there is in this league" and who has set a Cornell rookie record for blocked shots in a season with 33.
After most likely guarding Casey Friday night, Miller will be assigned Dartmouth's top weapon on Saturday in 6-foot-8 freshman Gabas Maldunas, who leads the Big Green at 8.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Maldunas, from Lithuania, has been one of the rare bright spots for a young Dartmouth team that has been competitive in most games. Ten of its losses have been by single digits.
The effectiveness of Cornell's four-guard lineup will go a long way in determining how the Big Red come out of this weekend, with senior Drew Ferry (12.2 ppg.) and freshmen Galal Cancer (7.1 ppg, 3.1 apg.) and Devin Cherry expected to make significant contributions.
» Notes: Cornell and Harvard have combined to win the last four Ivy League titles, with the Big Red the last Ancient Eight team to be nationally ranked before the Crimson this year. The Big Red rose as high as No. 17 two season ago during its run to the Sweet 16. ... Harvard and Princeton were co-champions last year after the Crimson beat the Tigers, 79-67, on the last day of the regular season, forcing a one-game playoff for the NCAA Tournament berth. The Tigers beat the Crimson, 63-62, when Doug Davis sank a fade-away jumper at the buzzer.
CU Men's Basketball
Friday night's game: Cornell (7-11, 2-2 Ivy League) at Harvard (18-2, 4-0)
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Lavietes Pavilion (2,050), Cambridge, Mass.
Saturday's game: Cornell at Dartmouth (4-16, 0-4)
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Leede Arena (2,100), Hanover, N.H.
Radio: WXYL-HD2 (103.3), both nights