Guard Nolan Cressler, shown shooting over Arizona State center Jordan Bachynski last November, will be counted on to pick up the scoring load in the absence of junior Shonn Miller. Cressler scored 9.3 points per game last season, fourth on the team.
2012-13: 13-18 overall, 5-9 Ivy League (T-6th)
FRIDAY: Cornell (0-0) at No. 8 Syracuse (0-0)
WHERE: Carrier Dome, Syracuse
Youthful Cornell basketball team hopes to improve along the way
Big Red opens Friday night at 8th-ranked Syracuse
Big Red opens Friday night at 8th-ranked Syracuse
Cornell men’s basketball coach Bill Courtney doesn’t exactly share that sentiment this season.
“We’ve had a couple of closed-door scrimmages ... but I feel like I could use a couple more of those before we start games,” Courtney said before practice Tuesday. “With two freshman starters and three freshmen in your top six or seven guys, you feel like you could use a month more of practice. You can’t postpone it, though.”
The Big Red will have its 24th preseason practice — the maximum allowed by the Ivy League — Thursday and make final preparations for its season opener. And it’s not just any opener: It just so happens to be against the eighth-ranked team in the nation, Syracuse, on Friday at the Carrier Dome.
When Cornell walks onto Jim Boeheim Court for Friday’s 7 p.m. tip-off, there will be two freshmen, a sophomore, a junior and a senior in the starting lineup. Nobody on the team has more than 700 minutes played in their careers.
“I think I had 1,100 my senior year in college alone,” said Courtney, a 1992 Bucknell graduate and member of the Bison’s athletic hall of fame. “That’s the kind of inexperience we have.”
With four games in eight days to start the season, Courtney said the focus has to be on Cornell, not anybody else.
“We’re still working on us,” said the fourth-year coach, who lost four starters to graduation or transfer and another expected key player who has left the team to concentrate on academics. “And in reality, you can’t replicate what they (Syracuse) do anyway, because they’re so long on the defensive end with the 2-3 (zone). You can do all you want as far as zone offense, but you can’t replicate that size and athleticism.”
Courtney has been busy teaching fundamentals to his youthful Big Red, and is certain his team will improve as the season goes on. Cornell was picked to finish tied for sixth with Dartmouth in the Ivy League, one point ahead of eighth-place Columbia — but the ever-optimistic coach isn’t worried about outsiders’ views.
“I don’t know what we’ll be like at the beginning,” he said, “but we’ll get better and I know we’ll be an exciting team. We’ve got a lot of speed and quickness and we’re going to push the ball up the floor and run like crazy. I just hope we don’t throw it all over the gym.”
Injury bugLast year, Cornell had a 13-12 record on Feb. 16 after a 69-66 win at Brown, but lost its last six games as a rash of injuries decimated the lineup. Included was a shoulder injury to scoring leader Shonn Miller, which sidelined him for the final four games and still has him on the shelf. His return is uncertain, and some college basketball followers are hinting strongly that Miller will miss the entire season.
Aside from Miller, who averaged 11.5 points and 6.8 rebounds last season, Courtney lost starters Miles Asafo-Adjei, Eitan Chemerinski, Johnathan Gray and Errick Peck (transferred to Purdue), as well as Galal Cancer, who started seven games a year ago and was projected as the starting point guard this year. He is still at Cornell but has decided to focus on his academics, Courtney said.
Courtney expects that the bulk of the scoring load, should Miller be unavailable, to be carried by sophomore guard Nolan Cressler, who averaged 9.3 points and made a team-high 54 3-pointers, while shooting 40.3 percent from beyond the arc. Also being counted on his junior guard Devin Cherry, who scored 6.2 points per game off the bench last year and has averaged 12.6 minutes in 48 career games.
“He hasn’t really played too much his first two years here, he’s sort of had to learn the system and how we play,” Courtney said, “but I expect him to have a breakout year.”
Starting at the point Friday night in CU’s three-guard offense will be freshman Robert Hatter, a 6-2 left-hander from Houston and a “pass-first” playmaker who’s on a steep learning curve, Courtney said.
“Freshman point guards are not easy to coach, they have to learn a lot, so he’s had his ups and downs,” the coach said with a smile. “But his talent and ability are going to shine through at some point. I don’t know if we’ll have to kill each other before that point, but we’ll survive that. I’ll just have more gray hairs.”
Other than Cressler and Cherry, the only other experienced returning guard is 6-3 senior Dominick Scelfo, who averaged 5.1 points in 28 games as a long-range sniper off the bench.
Up front will be 6-6, 230-pound senior forward Dwight Tarwater and the other freshman, David Onuorah, a 6-9 forward/center from Atlanta who’s earned raves from his coach.
“The improvement he’s made from the time we recruited him till now, even from September to now, has been outstanding,” Courtney said. “He’s a worker, wants to get better, works on every aspect of his game. He’s still kind of raw, but he’s a super athlete. He’s the kind of athlete you don’t necessarily have in the Ivy League — except if you go up to Harvard, they’ve got like five of them.”
Tarwater played in 19 games last season and scored a career-high 11 points in 19 minutes at Boston University on Dec. 22. The younger brother of Olympic gold-medal swimmer Davis Tarwater missed more than a month of the season following the death of his mother three days after Christmas.
A trio of juniors will also be counted on to come off the bench and produce in the paint. Deion Giddens is a 6-9 rebounder and rim protector, Dave LaMore is a 6-9 forward/center who will bang inside and step out to hit a jumper, and 6-7 Ned Tomic can also work effectively inside or outside.
Braxston Bunce was a highly touted 6-11 center when he arrived in Ithaca last year, but missed his freshman season due to a knee injury. He still hasn’t fully recovered, and is likely to return next month.
Early testsThe young Big Red gets thrown into the fire early, with four games in the first week, including the home-opener Sunday against Loyola, another home tilt Wednesday against regional rival Binghamton and an ESPN3 matchup next Friday at defending national champion and third-ranked Louisville.
In all, the Red will face seven teams that won at least 20 games a year and four that won at least 25. The Big Red will play eight games against seven teams that advanced to postseason a year ago, including five games against NCAA tournament teams.
Cornell will be one of the least experienced teams in a competitive Ivy League, but Courtney is counting on valuable lessons being learned on the fly by the time Ivy play starts in January.
“Our goal every year is to compete for a league title, to take it game by game and figure out if we can make that day our best day,” he said. “That’s kind of been our mantra this year, ‘Make every day our best day.’ So we really don’t judge it by outside expectations, people can pick us where they want to, but we want to maximize the ability we have in that room.
“That’s our goal as a staff and as players,” he said. “Whatever it is that’s our ceiling, we want to hit that. If we do that, we’ll feel good about where we land.”