Above, Cornell and Vanderbilt in 1987. Below, the Ithaca Journal preview of tonight's game. Photo Cornell Daily Sun.
ITHACA — When the Cornell men’s basketball team returns to action from its exam break tonight, it will have had 16 days to prepare for a daunting three-day stretch that will see the Big Red enter some of the most challenging environments in college basketball.
Cornell — which hasn’t played since a 70-63 home victory over Colgate on Dec. 1 — tips off at defending Southeastern Conference tournament champion Vanderbilt (4-4) at 9 tonight, before traveling to famed Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday to take on four-time national champion and second-ranked Duke (9-0).
Both games will be televised nationally on ESPNU (Time Warner channel 108).
Ask Big Red coach Bill Courtney, and he’ll tell you that not even another two weeks of practice could have helped him or his coaching staff replicate the atmospheres Cornell will experience in the next few days.
“I don’t think you can,” said Courtney. “At Vanderbilt you have the benches at the end of the court, and at Duke obviously you have one of the greatest home court advantages in college basketball history. You just kind of have to try to block that out and make sure the kids understand it’s still basketball, it’s still two hoops, and it’s still 10 guys on the floor. Nothing else matters.”
After starting the season 1-4, Courtney’s squad has won three of its last four games, including capturing the lower bracket championship at the Las Vegas Invitational and getting a much-needed win over the regional rival Raiders before breaking for finals.
The Big Red has struggled to find offensive consistency, although Cornell has averaged 81.0 points while shooting 49.7 percent from the floor in its last three victories. Sophomore forward Shonn Miller, the reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year, leads the team in both scoring (10.0 ppg.) and rebounding (7.4 rpg.), and also anchors a Big Red defense giving up 67.1 points per game while holding opponents to 30.2 percent shooting from behind the 3-point arc.
Six other players average 5.7 points or more for Cornell, including freshman shooting guard Nolan Cressler (9.0 ppg.), sophomore point guard Devin Cherry (8.2 ppg.), and seniors Errick Peck (7.4 ppg.) and Johnathan Gray (7.3 ppg.).
Cornell and Vanderbilt have met twice, with the Commodores (4-4) winning both matchups, a 101-80 victory during the 1971-72 season and a 95-79 decision in December of 1987. Vanderbilt is coming off a 71-46 home victory over Alabama A&M on Saturday, and so far this season has an overtime win against Xavier and losses against Oregon, Davidson and Villanova. The Big Red’s last victory over an SEC team came in the 2009-10 season opener, a 71-67 win at Alabama.
Duke, led by eight-time national coach of the year Mike Krzyzewski, will also be coming off an exam break when it hosts Cornell, having not played for 11 days since a 90-67 victory over Temple on Dec. 8. The Blue Devils already have three wins over teams that were ranked in the top five in the country (Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State) and have five players averaging double figures in scoring, including senior forward Mason Plumlee (19.2 ppg., 11.3 rpg.) and senior point guard Seth Curry (16.1 ppg.).
Duke has won four of the five meetings between the two clubs, although the Big Red hung tough in their last meeting, an 81-67 defeat on Jan. 6, 2008. Cornell followed that loss with 16 straight victories, en route to its first Ivy League title in 20 years.
With another month before the Big Red begins its quest for another Ancient Eight crown, Courtney said this week’s high-profile games are just more opportunities for his team to get better.
“I want to see us put things together, no matter what the results may be,” he said. “If we put things together we feel like we can compete with anyone. We have still much room to get better and we want to keep doing that.”