The “14-game tournament” known as the Ivy League men’s basketball season tips off for Cornell at 7 Saturday night when the Big Red invades Levien Gym in New York to face the Lions of Columbia.
Cornell (1-13) will attempt to ride the momentum of its first win, a 77-55 defeat of Oberlin College last Saturday at Newman Arena, into its Ivy opener against a Columbia team (11-6) that has won six of its past seven. Among the Lions’ victims are Colgate and Stony Brook, both of which have beaten Cornell this season.
The men’s game will follow the Ivy League women’s opener between the Big Red (8-6) and the Lions (3-11), slated for 4:30 p.m. at Levien.
Entering his fourth season at the helm, Cornell coach Bill Courtney knew his young team would experience bumps along the road, particularly with the losses of three players he expected to have this season. Guard Galal Cancer is still in school but has left the team, while 6-6 forward Errick Peck transferred to Purdue and is averaging under 5 points in 19 minutes per game for the Boilermakers.
The third player, 6-7 junior forward Shonn Miller, suffered a shoulder injury late last season and is still unable to play. Cornell dropped its last six games of last year, the last four coming with Miller sidelined, and then opened with 13 straight losses this season before knocking off the Division III Yeomen last weekend.
“We haven’t shot the ball particularly well, and we didn’t guard well early in the season and we turned the ball over a little bit too much,” he said Wednesday during the Ivy League’s midseason teleconference. “You make a combination of those things, and it usually doesn’t end up in the win column. But even with all the trials we’ve been through, I’ve really enjoyed coaching this group of young men. They come to practice every day with a great attitude, an attitude of trying to get better, they’ve worked hard to get better and I do think we’ve made some progress.”
After starting the season with 10 games in 30 days — including visits to 2013 Final Four teams Syracuse and Louisville — Cornell has had a little bit more time to refine things in practice, another reason Courtney is optimistic.
“I think our group has showns some signs of improvement, particularly on the defensive end,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll shoot the ball a little bit better, but for all the things this group has been through, for them to show the improvement and the attitude that they bring every day has been terrific.”
Cornell is last in the Ivies in offense (66.2 ppg.) and defense (81.1 ppg.), while the Lions are second defensively (61.9 ppg.) and sixth in offense (70.0 ppg.).
Courtney has been happy with the attitude his young team has come to practice with, but admitted that finally get one in the “W” column was a huge weight lifted off the team’s collective shoulders.
“No matter who the opponent is, if you can see a win in that column, it does wonders for your group and your confidence,” he said. “When you work hard and do all the things the coaches ask you and you still don’t quite pull out the win, it can become frustrating and take away a little bit of confidence.
“Getting the win gives you a little more pep in your step,” he said, “gets the guys a little more lively in practice and gives them the understanding that if we do things correctly, we can win basketball games.”
Columbia fourth-year coach Kyle Smith’s youthful squad, which features 10 freshmen and sophomores and no seniors, has won eight of nine home games and is shooting 41 percent from beyond the 3-point line and 45 percent overall. It is also coming off a defeat of a Division III squad, a 104-78 rout of Central Pennsylvania in which the Lions hit 18 3-pointers.
Smith said the fact that Cornell is coming into the game off of its first victory should not affect the Big Red’s mindset.
“I think both of us look at as, we’re 0-0,” Smith said. “They’ve got some great young talent, and I think Coach Courtney knows that some of it has been mental, but their physical talent is good. It doesn’t surprise me, what some of those young players are doing. When you get into league play, there’s a history there and a lot of that other stuff gets thrown out the window.”
Cornell is led by the backcourt trio of sophomore Nolan Cressler (16.5 points per game, 4.9 rebounds), junior Devin Cherry (10.6 ppg.) and freshman Robert Hatter (10.3 ppg.).The Lions are led by sophomore guard Maodo Lo (13.9 ppg., 4.4 rpg.), 6-7 junior forward Alex Rosenberg (13.5 ppg., 3.6 rpg.) and sophomore guard Grant Mullins (12.9 ppg., 3.2 rpg., 2.6 apg.).