By Ed Boulat
The Ithaca Journal
ITHACA — Entering his third year at the helm of the Cornell University men’s basketball team, which plays its opener at noon Saturday against Western Michigan at Newman Arena, Bill Courtney feels as if he can say the following with confidence:
The Big Red is motivated, athletic, deep, still relatively young and, at least to the neutral fan, should be a blast to watch.
“This team probably fits more the style of play we’re looking to do,” Courtney said this week.
Also, if he had any hair left on his head, it might not make it through the season.
“I think that’s probably also a reason for the excitement, because we’re extremely athletic, extremely fast, and we’ll probably be extremely exciting to watch, sometimes to our detriment,” Courtney joked. “If you play at that tempo, you have to realize there are going to be some mistakes involved.”
There is a certain buzz surrounding Courtney’s squad as the curtain rises on the 2012-13 campaign, and at least on paper, it figures to be warranted. The Big Red returns 10 of its top 12 scorers from a year ago, and was picked to finish fourth in the Ivy League Preseason poll, one spot higher than it finished last season with a conference record of 7-7.
A year after losing 141 player games to injury, the team is also as healthy as it’s been in three years, Courtney said.
“Knock on wood, this is the healthiest that we’ve been since I’ve been here,” said Courtney, whose team was 12-16 overall last season. “Because of our style of play and the quick tempo, you need several guys in the rotation, and we’ve been able to establish those guys early because we’ve been healthy.
“But one of the things that’s really important with our group is that we don’t have to depend on freshmen this year,” added Courtney, who sometimes had three freshmen on the court at the same time last season. “That’s probably when you know you have a better ballclub, when you don’t have to depend on the freshmen, because our returners have made such big strides.”
Included in that group is last season’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year, 6-foot-7 forward Shonn Miller. The sophomore from Ohio set rookie program records for rebounds (170) and blocked shots (46) while averaging 8.9 points a year ago. According to Courtney, Miller has “developed his offensive game a ton,” becoming a better shooter and handler of the ball.
Senior guard Johnathan Gray has significantly improved his game, Courtney said, most likely a result of a summer stint with the U.S. Virgin Islands’ national team at the FIBA Centrobasket Championship in Puerto Rico. Gray was an All-Ivy honorable mention pick last season after averaging 8.8 points.
Senior center Eitan Chemerinski is also back and expected to improve upon averages of 5.9 points and 2.8 rebounds. At the guard spots, Courtney will turn over the reins to senior Miles Asafo-Adjei and sophomores Galal Cancer and Devin Cherry, all quick and athletic.
Junior Dwight Tarwater and senior Peter McMillan (forwards) should also figure into Courtney’s rotation, along with junior point guard Dominick Scelfo and 6-9 sophomore center Dave LaMore.
What the Big Red lost over the off-season is far from insignificant, however. Graduated seniors Chris Wroblewski and Andrew Ferry were the team’s two leading scorers, scoring 11.5 and 11.3 per outing, respectively. Wroblewski became the school’s all-time leader in assists with 482 and a 1,000-point scorer en route to first-team All-Ivy honors. He was also the team’s vocal and emotional leader, as well as its most clutch performer.
“We put the ball in his hands a lot toward the end of games and his poise was unmatched,” Courtney said of Wroblewski. “We’re still trying to figure that out every day, who is the guy who is going to have the ball toward the end of game, and there’s several candidates for that, and it won’t necessarily be the point guard this year. That’s something as a team we’re going to have to figure out pretty quickly.”
What the Big Red figures to have lost in the backcourt, Courtney hopes it will gain to some degree in the frontcourt, with the return of senior forward Errick Peck, who was sidelined all of last season with a knee injury. As a sophomore, the 6-foot-6, 224-pound Peck started 24 of 28 contests and was second on the team in scoring at 11.0 points per game. Now healthy, Courtney said Peck could be one of the answers to the Wroblewski dilemma, especially come Ivy League play.
“Errick, if you consider him a newcomer, he’s certainly the biggest newcomer in the league and will have the biggest impact,” said Courtney. “He’s definitely back to where he was when he left, if not better. He was our second-leading scorer two years ago and I could easily foresee him being that or our leading scorer this year.”
Coupled with the departure of Wroblewski and Ferry, Peck’s return will most likely mean a shift in offensive strategy for Cornell, whose 3-point season totals in the last five years represent the top five single-season marks in school history. The Big Red hit 217 3-pointers a year ago, 126 of them coming off the fingertips of Wroblewski and Ferry. Scelfo returns as the team’s best outside shooter, although Courtney doesn’t anticipate another run at the school’s 3-point record this season.
“We’ll be a little different in that I don’t think we’ll shoot quite as many threes as we have the last two years,” said Courtney. “We’ll look to get it inside and drive to the basket and get fouled a little bit more. We have a lot of versatile guys that can do a lot of things, so we have several guys that can dribble it up the floor, we have several guys that can post up, we have several guys that can shoot perimeter jump shots. You’ll see guys doing a little bit of everything.”
Adding to the excitement is some of the places Courtney will be bringing his new-look Red. After today’s opener, Cornell will play two home games next week against St. Bonaventure (Wednesday) and Saint Peter’s (Friday) before playing at NCAA Sweet 16 participants Wisconsin and Arizona State as part of the Las Vegas Invitational.
The Big Red will also visit Vanderbilt on Dec. 17 before making a trip to famed Cameron Indoor Stadium on Dec. 19 to take on Duke.
With five of Cornell’s first nine games at Newman Arena, Courtney hopes a strong start can serve his team well once it starts hitting the road.
“We haven’t had the luxury of playing many home games early on in the last couple of years,” said Courtney. “What we have to do is get off to a better start than we have and hopefully have a chance to build some momentum so our tough schedule doesn’t look as daunting as it looks right now.”