ITHACA — As the Cornell men’s basketball team enters the second half of its season — the “14-Game Tournament,” as the Ivy League schedule is called — third-year coach Bill Courtney is pleased with how his team has positioned itself.
“Like everyone else, we’ve had our ups and downs and we’re trying to figure ourselves out a little bit,” Courtney said last week during the Ivy mid-season media teleconference. “Trying to figure yourselves out when you lose your two leading scorers (Chris Wroblewski and Drew Ferry) is a challenge, but I think we’ve handled it pretty well and I’m pleased with where we are heading into league play.”
The “tournament” begins for the Big Red (8-9) at 3 p.m. Saturday when Columbia (8-6) visits Newman Arena. The game will be televised by the NBC Sports Network, with Randy Moss on play-by-play and former Lions guard Dalen Cuff handling analysis.
Cornell ended the nonconference portion of its schedule on a high-scoring note with its 103-84 defeat of Division III SUNY Old Westbury last Saturday at Newman. It was Cornell’s first 100-point outing since a 108-87 defeat of Harvard in the 1992-93 season finale.
Senior Johnathan Gray led five double-figure scorers with a game-high 24 points for Cornell, which used a 22-1 second-half run to subdue the high-scoring Panthers. Courtney likes the way his team has progressed since the beginning of the year.
“We struggled at the beginning of the year with turnovers and missing open shots,” he said, “but I think that as our guards have gotten used to different roles, without Chris Wroblewski and Andrew Ferry, they’ve understood a little better what we want out of them.
“I’ve seen the progress in our team, and it’s resulted in a few more wins,” Courtney said.
“Our schedule has been a little different from what we started with, when we played a ton of BCS teams (like Vanderbilt and top-ranked Duke) on the road, but we have gotten better and I can see that. And our goal every day is to improve, and hopefully we’ll continue to do that.”
The re-emergence of 6-foot-6 senior forward Errick Peck has given the Red another option at the offensive end on a team that features just one player averaging more than 10 points (sophomore Shonn Miller, 10.2 ppg.). A knee injury sidelined him for all of last season, and he was not all the way back when the team broke camp in November.
“It’s been so great having him back,” Courtney said. “The thing about him is, even at the beginning of the year he wasn’t back to 100 percent —probably about 75-80 percent — working his way back from the knee injury. So he had to get back in shape after he got back to 100 percent, then knock the rust off his game of sitting almost a year and a half out of basketball.
“So what we’ve seen over the last few weeks is him emerging back to being the player we’d hoped he could be,” he said. “He had 21 points against Saint Francis (on Dec. 28 in a 79-67 win) and looked like an even better version of the guy who left as a sophomore. We’re just hoping that he’ll remain consistent, but obvviously having him back is a huge bonus for us and helps us become better.”
Columbia has suffered home losses to Marist and Bucknell, but got a huge 75-57 nonconference victory at Villanova back on Nov. 20. Columbia has not played since a 78-69 loss at Holy Cross on Jan. 8.
“We’ve got to get more consistent,” Lions coach Kyle Smith said. “We’re getting better defensively, and we’ve got to get better rebounding the ball if we want to contend. Those are points of emphasis for us.”
Cousy Award candidate Brian Barbour, a senior point guard, leads the team in scoring (13.4 ppg.), assists (5.1 apg.) and steals (1.8 spg.), while freshman Grant Mullins has chipped in 11.5 ppg. and 3.2 rpg. while shooting 51 percent, 48 percent from beyond the arc and 96.3 percent from the free-throw line.
Columbia sophomore guard Steve Frankoski averaged 6.5 points in 23 starts as a freshman in 2010-11 before a knee injury sidelined him for last season. He is fourth on the Lions this year at 10.1 ppg. in 13 games.
“He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around,” Smith said. “He had a little slump earlier in the season, where he was battling himself a little bit. But coming off the bench, he’s been a big spark for us, and when he gets it going, you just get out of his way.”
• NOTES: Columbia leads the all-time series 121-97, though Cornell has won 15 of the past 20 meetings. The Lions won three in a row before the Red pulled out a 65-60 victory a year ago at Newman. ... Cornell has won four of its past five, with three road victories included. The Red is 3-4 at home, 3-5 on the road and 2-0 on neutral courts. ... The only other league game on Saturday is Yale at Brown (7 p.m.).