By Ed Boulat
ITHACA — In sports, momentum is everything.
The Cornell men’s basketball team is unsure how much momentum it has, or in which direction that impetus is carrying it.
Last week, the Big Red (3-5) played some of its best basketball of the young season in wins over Presbyterian and Longwood to capture the lower bracket title of the 2012 Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational. But on Wednesday, Cornell seemed to take two steps back, suffering a 23-point loss to Stony Brook at Newman Arena, the team’s most lopsided home loss in coach Bill Courtney’s three years.
Now, with a 16-day break looming for Courtney’s players, the Big Red faces a pivotal early-season test in the form of regional rival Colgate, which visits Newman at 6 p.m. Saturday. A win would send Cornell into two weeks of practice with renewed confidence and energy. A loss might send Courtney back to the drawing board.
“They have improved a ton from last year,” said Courtney of Colgate, which has started 3-4 after going 8-22 in 2011-12. “You can see on tape that they some new guys that can really play basketball.
“For us, the big thing is we have to get back to who we are,” Courtney added. “We’ve lost some of that.”
One of those “new guys” for the Raiders is 6-foot-7 senior forward Murphy Burnatowski, who sat out last season after transferring from Maine. Burnatowski comes in averaging 16.1 points and 6.4 rebounds, while 6-foot-5 junior guard Pat Moore is second in scoring for Colgate at 16.0 points per game.
Saturday’s contest will be the 124th meeting between the Big Red and the Raiders since the rivalry started in 1901. Cornell leads the series, 70-53, and while the Big Red won 16 consecutive contests between 1961-69 and 11 in a row from 1981-91, the Raiders have had the edge recently.
Colgate has won five of the past seven meetings with the Red, including a 76-73 win at Newman Arena during the 2007-08 season, the last time the two teams met.
In an expected turn, it has been Cornell’s defense — or lack thereof — which has Courtney calling for his team to regain its identity. The Big Red has given up 76 and 78 points in its past two outings, and on Wednesday allowed Stony Brook to shoot 54 percent.
Cornell has relied on its defense to kickstart its scoring, although Courtney has sought to give his team more offensive firepower by altering his starting lineup since the opener. Sophomore forward Shonn Miller (8.8 ppg., 6.6 rpg., 1.6 bpg.) and senior guards Miles Asafo-Adjei (2.8 apg.) and Johnathan Gray (7.0 ppg.) have remained in the starting five, while senior center Josh Figini has taken the place of classmate Eitan Chemerinski (7.8 ppg.) and freshman guard Nolan Cressler has been favored over senior forward Errick Peck (6.6 ppg.).
That group has started the past three for Courtney, a move which paid off in Las Vegas, where the Big Red shot 55 percent and averaged 86.5 points.
Cressler has been a welcome surprise for Cornell, and leads the team at 9.8 points per game despite coming off the bench in five of eight games. The 6-foot-4 Pittsburgh native offers Cornell a much needed outside-shotmaker, knocking in 49 percent of his 3-pointers this season, but it has been the freshman’s defense that Courtney says has allowed him to stay on the court.
“He’s definitely become a better defender,” Courtney said. “He’s figuring out a way for him to be successful guarding at the college level, and the more he continues to do that the more he’ll play. He’s obviously a big part of what we’re doing.”