ITHACA — Eight games into the Ivy League season, the Cornell men’s basketball has proven to be road warriors, posting a 4-1 record away from Ithaca. The confines of Newman Arena have been a tad less friendly for the Big Red as it has gone 1-2.
But with four consecutive home games over the next two weekends, the streaking Red have a golden chance to reverse that trend.
“The biggest thing is that a win is a win,” Cornell senior forward Errick Peck said. “Whether we by 20 or by three, at the end of the day, one in the win column is huge at this point of the year. The biggest thing is that we gained some confidence. We grinded it out and got two wins on the road. Road trips are always a good time for team bonding and I feel we are getting closer as a unit.
“One thing that can help us is fan support. On the road, we know that from the beginning we have to play well, because the refs might not be in our favor or things might not be going well. Here, I feel like we come out just a little too unfocused than what we should be. We just need to make sure that we have the same mentality no matter where we are. Hopefully that happens this weekend.”
The Red (13-12, 5-3 Ivy League), who have won nine of their past 13 games, face a unique challenge against Penn (6-18, 3-4), a team they defeated 71-69 earlier this month in Philadelphia. The Quakers are small and like to use their quickness to put up a lot of shots from the outside.
“They set a lot of ball screens, a lot of side ball screens,” Peck said. “They pick-and-roll a lot. They hit a lot of outside shots in the first game, they hit a lot of deep 3-pointers. I think the biggest thing is just closing out, making them put it on the floor, and playing great help defense. Then we can just get in transition and run. I don’t think they have much interest in getting back on defense or anything else like that. Hopefully, we can get it into a track meet and hopefully we can get a win.”
Cornell coach Bill Courtney echoes those sentiments.
“They are probably the one team in the league who will get into a running matchup with us,” he said. “They will try to push the tempo as well as we will. They will pressure like we will. They will do some things to probably make the game more exciting for fans.”
Led by third-year coach Jerome Allen, one of the best players in Penn history, the Quakers like to get out in transition almost as much as Cornell. Junior guard Miles Cartwright leads Penn with 13.7 points and 4.0 assists per game. Junior forward Fran Dougherty adds 13.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game in 12 games for the Quakers.
Cornell sits in third place in the conference following a pair of road wins last weekend at Yale and Brown. Princeton, at 12-9, 5-2, maintains sole possession of second place. Harvard (15-7, 7-1) is first. The Tigers handed the Red its worst conference loss of the season, 76-59, earlier this month in New Jersey.
In that game, the Tigers shot 62 percent after halftime and turned the ball over 10 times against Cornell’s pressure defense to secure the win. Ian Hummer and Denton Koon each scored 22 points for the Tigers.
“I think the biggest thing is really focusing on our concepts and what we want to do and playing the way we want to play,” Cornell freshman guard Nolan Cressler said about turning around the team’s fortunes at home. “Whether home or away, we should be able to beat any team.”
Both Cressler and Courtney said the team gained confidence after sweeping Brown and Yale on the road.
“We are in a good spot right now,” said Cressler, who has been honored twice this season as Ivy League rookie of the week. “We are solid in third, we aren’t tied with anybody, so we have a chance to compete for the Ivy League championship still. Our destiny is in our hands.”
“One of the things we told our guys in particular after we lost to Harvard a couple Fridays ago, the only thing we can do is focus on ourselves and concentrate on one game at a time,” Courtney added. “That’s the only thing we can do, and hopefully we continue that mindset. We feel good about where we’re at right now, but again, we can’t worry about the standings or what is going on around us. We have to have blinders on, focusing on our team and focusing on the game at hand.”
Cornell’s 10-man rotation sets itself up well for the final three weeks of the regular season. And its pressure defense is what leads to success. In Courtney’s three seasons as coach, the Red are 29-4 when scoring more than 68 points, including 11-1 this season.
A healthy and aggressive Peck is a big reason for the Red resurgence in the past few weeks. The 6-foot-6 senior missed last season with a knee injury, but he is rounding into form, according to Tracy.
“It’s been tremendous,” Courtney said. “He had to one, get over the injury, two, had to get himself into shape, and three, shake off the rust. And I think right now you are seeing the results of that. He is becoming the player we all thought he could be.”
The Big Red are seeking to continue its solid play.
“Any time you see success, I think it helps to breed success,” Courtney said. “I think our guys are understanding that when we play well, when we execute what we need to execute, we can be a pretty good ball club. We are trying to play the best we can play, and if we do that, we will be in good shape.”