ITHACA — Ask anyone associated with the Cornell men’s basketball team about their New England road trip this weekend, and you are bound to hear one word: Huge.
That’s because, with a 14-game conference schedule and no postseason tournament, every game counts. Friday’s matchup at Yale is especially huge.
The Bulldogs (9-14) and Big Red enter the game tied for third in the Ivy League at 3-3, behind Harvard (5-1) and Princeton (4-1). Cornell follows with a Saturday night matchup in Providence against Brown (8-12, 2-4).
“Both games are going to be huge this weekend,” Cornell coach Bill Courtney said. “Yale is obviously playing well right now. Beating Princeton on the road says something about their abilities. We will certainly be ready for them. From what we’ve seen, especially the last 50 minutes of basketball (the final 10 minutes against Harvard and the win over Dartmouth), if we play the want we want to play, if we play with that intensity and effort, there isn’t anybody in this league that we can’t beat.”
“It’s a huge game, said senior guard Johnathan Gray, who is one of 10 Cornell players seeing extensive playing time this season. “They just beat Princeton and are coming off some big wins. They are feeling pretty good about themselves. It’s a huge game, because it can kind of set the tone for what kind of team we are.
“We want to make an impact in this league and let everybody know that we haven’t given up and we are still fighting. We have been playing really well on the road this season, so we just have to continue that.”
The Red (11-12) has won seven of its last 11 games and is starting to play more like the team Courtney says he envisioned at the beginning of the season.
“It’s all based on our defensive intensity and effort,” Courtney said. “Once we are able to get stops and rebounds, we are able to push it up the floor in transition. If we continue to execute those simple things, we will be in every game.”
“We play solid pressure defense and that leads to transition opportunities on offense,” said sophomore Shonn Miller, whom Courtney calls the best defensive player in the Ivy League. “Off a rebound, off a make, or off a turnover, we are ready to get out and push the ball. I wouldn’t say we were uncomfortable (at the beginning of the year), but we didn’t have the feel for it that we do now.”
Miller, last year’s Ivy Rookie of the Year, is the only Cornell player averaging in double figures at 10.3 points per game. Recent contributions from freshman guard Nolan Cressler, the reigning Ivy League rookie of the week, and senior forward Errick Peck, who scored 29 points combined in both games last weekend, provide positive signs that Cornell might be rounding into form.
“We are a really unselfish team,” said Gray, second on the team behind Miller at 9.5 points per game. “This team feeds off whatever anyone else does. We like to see each other be successful. When everyone is playing well, that’s when we are at our best. We don’t like to focus in on getting one guy particular shots. We want to focus on what the defense creates, and that creates a lot of havoc for other teams, because when you have a lot of guys scoring, they can’t key on one particular guy.”
The Red will seek to utilize that depth to neutralize the Yale backcourt of senior Austin Morgan (team-leading 11.6 ppg.) and sophomore Javier Duren (7.2). Justin Sears, a 6-foot-8 freshman forward, averages 10.6 points and 6.3 rebounds.
“By design, we play 10 guys,” Courtney said. “There is not a lot of separation between our guys. It seems like a different guy is stepping up each game. What we need to have is more consistency and I think you are starting to see that.”
The Bulldogs defeated Penn and Princeton on the road last weekend.
Junior guard Sean McGonagill (14.3 ppg.), senior guard Matt Sullivan (14.0) and sophomore center Rafael Maia (11.0) pace the Bears, who’ve lost four of five entering the weekend. Cornell has defeated Brown 12 straight times and 15 out of the last 16.