Friday, November 13, 2015

News and Notes: Friday Game Night Edition

Below, news and notes...

  • Georgia Tech Athletics has game notes listed here and here for tonight's game.
Cornell University forward David Onuorah gets to start the 2015-16 season in his own backyard. Familiar faces will not only be in the stands, but one will also be wearing the opposing jersey.
The Big Red men’s basketball season begins against Atlantic Coast Conference member Georgia Tech at 8 on Friday night in Hank McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, Ga.  Onuorah, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound junior, resides roughly 20 mile east of Atlanta in Litonia, Ga.
“I’m really excited,” Onuorah said before Wednesday’s practice. “I’m just going to go out there and give it my all. Not a lot of people get a chance to go home, especially coming from Atlanta to come all the way up here to New York. I’m just excited for the opportunity. I just want to go out there and have fun, show what Cornell basketball is all about.”
The Big Red return a pair of starters from last season’s team in junior guard Robert Hatter and Onuorah. That duo will likely carry a heavy burden early in the season as the Big Red must replace senior guards Devin Cherry, Galal Cancer and unanimous First-Team All-Ivy League forward Shonn Miller. Miller will use his final season of eligibility at the University of Connecticut this season.
Onuorah and Miller anchored one of the top defensive units in the nation last season. The Big Red led the Ivy League in blocked shots per game (4.8) and field goal percentage defense (38.9 percent, 18th-best in NCAA Div. I) on their way to a 13-18 season (5-9 Ivy League).
Onuorah averaged 1.5 blocked shots and 3.5 rebounds in less than 20 minutes per game (18.9 mpg) as a sophomore. He ranked fifth in the league in blocked shots (45), and he enters this season ranked eighth all-time in blocked shots in Cornell history (73).
This season, he’s hoping to show off a bit more of his offensive arsenal after averaging 2.0 points per game as a sophomore. He’d love to have a breakout game with friends and family in attendance, especially since he’ll be playing against former high school teammate and classmate Quinton Stephens.
Stephens, a 6-foot-9, 203-pound junior forward for Georgia Tech, and Onuorah exchanged messages leading into the season opener.
“We’ve been texting, not really trash talk,” Onuorah said. “We’ve always been encouraging each other our whole career. We’re just excited for the opportunity. It’s like surreal that it’s happening, but it’s becoming more real, real, real each day.”
    Predictions don’t always come true. Last season, the preseason media poll had the Cornell men’s basketball team at the bottom of the Ivy League standings, and they surprised everyone by finishing fifth with a record of 13-18, an 11-win improvement over the previous year. This season, though, the Big Red is again projected to finish last in the Ivies, but the players are confident that they’ll be able to exceed expectations once more.
    Despite their losing record last year, Cornell boasted an exceptional defense, finishing as one of the top 40 teams in D-1 in both blocks and opponent’s field goal percentage. Shonn Miller ‘15, who is playing for UConn this season, was a key component of Cornell’s stingy defense, and his 1.8 blocks and 1.3 steals per game will be greatly missed.
    To maintain their defensive prowess, the Big Red will look to take advantage of their athleticism. “We’re working on building habits and establishing our identity as a team,” junior guard Robert Hatter said. “We want our team to be the one that plays aggressively, fast, and relentlessly, and is able to control the tempo of the game. On defense, we really try to pressure offenses into a bad shot or a turnover so we can push the ball in transition.”
    After scoring just 62 points per game last year, the team hopes that playing faster will also jump-start their offense. “We want to play an up-tempo style of play, both defensively and offensively,” senior guard Robert Mischler explained. “We’re going to use our speed and play at a fast pace.”
    Cornell will have to find new sources of offense following the losses of Miller, Galal Cancer ‘15, and Devin Cherry ‘15 who, combined, accounted for nearly 60 percent of the team’s scoring last season. Hatter, whose 11.3 points per game ranked second on the team, has the potential to emerge as a star due to his ability to create shots.
    Sophomores Jordan Abdur Ra’oof, Pat Smith, and Wil Bathurst will all see increased playing time this year. With eight freshmen and four sophomores, the majority of the roster is underclassmen, and the Big Red will need contributions from their younger talent. “We do have a lot of young guys this year and some may think we lack experience, but the young guys can really get after it and they’re really talented. They listen and get better every day,” Hatter stated. “They’ll really open up the floor and allow us to have multiple attacks on the offensive end.”
    Two freshman would could make an impact right away are Stone Gettings, a big man who can stretch the floor with his outside shooting, and Matt Morgan, a two-time all-state guard in high school from North Carolina. “Communication is really key to our success this year with a lot of freshmen learning new things,” Morgan explained. “We have to constantly talk to each other so that we’re on the same page.”
    Morgan looks primed to be a major contributor, and he commented that his adjustment has been “a really good one, to say the least.” The first year player is excited to be learning and gaining experience from the veterans, but he also hopes to assume a leadership role. “Being a point guard, you have to be able to lead the team, and that’s what I intend on doing on the court,” Morgan said, “[as well as] being a scorer whenever I get the chance.”
    Despite a number of promising prospects, the team faces several possible roadblocks to success. “The biggest challenge this season is definitely going to be overcoming our size,” Morgan said. “We aren’t a huge team so everyone has to do more in order to overcome that. We work on it and talk about it everyday.”
    Coach Bill Courtney has high hopes for 6’9 junior David Onuorah, who worked over the offseason to improve his offensive game. Last season, he showed that he is a physical presence inside, grabbing the third most rebounds on the team despite playing only 19 minutes per game. “We are a guard-oriented team, so it’ll be critical that we rebound well,” Mischler commented.
    The Ivy League could be very strong this season, with three teams (Yale, Columbia, and Princeton) nearly splitting the first place votes in the preseason media poll and defending-champion Harvard still lurking. This doesn’t stop Cornell from entering the year with confidence — both Onuorah and Morgan described team as “hungry” to win. “Our goals this year consist of winning the Ivy League title and making noise in the NCAA tournament,” Hatter stated. “We know that it won’t be handed to us, but this group of guys is ready to put in the work to get the job done.” 
    With a talented senior class gone and eight new freshmen on the team, Cornell basketball is sticking to the same principles that it has since head coach Bill Courtney arrived on campus five years ago: play fast, attack the basket and suffocate opponents on defense. With the departure of Shonn Miller ’15, Galal Cancer ’15 and Devin Cherry ’15, Courtney said that, while the team is still set on forcing opponents to play fast, Cornell has a ways to go to play at the same defensive level as last year.
    Last year’s squad held opponents to the lowest field goal percentage in the Ivy League. Opponents shot just 39 percent against the Red, a number which ranked in the top twenty nationally.
    “Shonn Miller was such a good defender, not only with his shot blocking and defensive rebounding, but his ability to guard 1-5 on the floor,” Courtney said. “When you lose a guy like that you have to kind of change what you’re doing. We’ll be a little more aggressive with our defense, take some more chances with the full court, take some more chances in the half court.”
    While the team may not improve on defense, Courtney and his team said they’re confident that the squad will be a better offensive team than last year.
    “The difference between this year and last year is this year we have a lot more weapons on offense,” said junior guard Robert Hatter. “A lot of guys can put the ball in the basket. We can score from the inside and out.”
    Much of the scoring will fall to the 6-foot-2 Hatter, who was second on the team in scoring last year with 11.3 points per game, the most among all returning players. With the graduation of Cherry, who mainly played point guard last season, Hatter will see some time at both guard positions this year.
    Joining him in the backcourt are a number of younger guys. Freshman guard Matt Morgan is listed as the starter against Georgia Tech and everyone has spoke highly of the 6-foot-3 guard.
    “I love it,” Hatter said of sharing the floor with Morgan. “The team calls him mini-me. I’m just trying to get him there. He can get the ball in the basket. He can play, and he’s really talented. Me and him together we’ll be able to do some special things I believe, so I’m very excited about that.”
    Junior guard Darryl Smith, who saw his play time decrease last year after a solid freshman season, is also returning and will start against Georgia Tech. Another returning guard is junior JoJo Fallas who saw time in every game last season as a three point specialist off the bench. Courtney also said freshman Troy Whiteside will see time at point guard this season. With so many talented guards, speed will definitely be an advantage for the team, according to Courtney.
    But while the team is deep at the guard position, Cornell does not have too many big men. The squad does have junior forward David Onuorah, the other returning starter outside of Hatter. The 6-foot-9 Onuorah was a big reason why Cornell’s defense was as good as it was last season. While he struggled on offense last year, Onuorah’s offseason focus on offense was praised by Courtney.
    “He’s made an incredible jump and hopefully that’s something that will translate into games,” Courtney said. “He works harder than any guy we have. He’s in here constantly working on his post moves, working on his jump shot, working on his free throws. I’ve never seen a kid work on free throws as much as he does.”
    Rounding out the starting five is sophomore Jordan Abdur-Ra’oof. According to Courtney, with such a young team, Abdur-Ra’oof and the other sophomores will have a much larger role this season.
    For its first game of the season, Cornell will get a taste of a major conference in a matchup against Georgia Tech. The Red’s non-conference schedule is difficult; the game against the Yellow Jackets is the first of three classes against ACC foes. But Courtney said this exposure to Power-5 conference teams with great size is a good way to warm-up for the Red’s Ivy League schedule.
    “It gives us a chance to play against top notch competition,” Courtney said. “When we get to the Ivy League, which is an incredibly strong league this year, we’ll be prepared after playing against some of the best teams in the country.”
    Playing in Atlanta holds particular significance to Onuorah who grew up outside of the city. One of his high school teammates will be suiting up for the Yellow Jackets tonight.
    “I’m really excited,” Onuorah said about playing in front of friends and family. “I just want to go out there and give it my all. Not a lot of people get a chance to go home. I’m excited for the opportunity, and I just want to go out there and have fun and show them what Cornell basketball is all about.”
    • The Daily Campus interviewed the Cornell Daily Sun about Shonn Miller and writes:
    Shonn Miller and Sterling Gibbs were two of the best graduate transfers available heading into this season, and head coach Kevin Ollie’s ability to land both players gave the Huskies a significant talent boost as they go for their fifth national championship.
    Associate Sports Editor Dan Madigan got in touch with Adam Bronfin, a sophomore from Cornell who covered the Big Red’s basketball team last season for the Cornell Sun, for a first-hand look of what UConn fans should expect from Shonn Miller this season.
    Dan Madigan: How did Shonn Miller end up at UConn?
    Adam Bronfin: So the Ivy League doesn't allow student-athletes to play as grad students. You can technically red-shirt, saving a year of athletic eligibility, but in order to take a fifth year, there also has to be academic reasons. In some cases student-athletes, withdraw from school when they get injured. Shonn injured his shoulder his junior year, but still graduated on time, forcing him to transfer.
    Is there a player in the NBA with a similar skill set to Miller?
    Probably got to go with Kawhi Leonard. Miller's said a couple times that he tries to play like Leonard and it's pretty accurate. He can't drive as well as Leonard, though.
    What are Miller's biggest strengths?
    His defense. Cornell has one of the best defenses in the Ivy League and Miller is a big reason why that happened. He plays solid help defense, but one-on-one is where he really starts to shine. He'd guard all kinds of players with Cornell.
    He's got a great combination of timing and length so he's a great shot blocker. I think you saw a little of that in the exhibition game. He's also one of the best defensive rebounders I've seen. He's able to fly out of nowhere to grab rebounds over players. Again, that's all timing and length.
    What are his biggest weaknesses?
    He's not the best passer. Averaged under two per game with Cornell and doesn't often see the right pass to make.
    How did Coach Courtney utilize Miller in the offense last season?
    Miller was the best player on the squad last year so he did have most of the offense involve him. Miller is great off the ball, so he had a number of plays drawn up for him that ended with an alley-oop or an open jumper. Miller also saw time in the post; he's got a nice little hook shot and also loves to face you up and fake a jump shot and drive.
    Miller did drift toward the three point arc maybe a little too much and sometimes would get a little complacent on offense and just catch and shoot, which is why his field goal percentage wasn't great last year.
    Is there one game or play that stands out from Miller's career at Cornell?
    Miller will tell you his best game was in the win against Harvard his senior year. It was the first victory against the Crimson since he got to Cornell. Harvard won the Ivy League during each of Miller's seasons. He ended with 24 points and 15 rebounds, and he really played well down the stretch.
    Miller doesn't really show emotion during games (see Leonard, Kawhi), but in that game, when he nailed a jumper with not much time left that effectively put Harvard away, he pumped his fist and yelled "Yes!" to the crowd.
    You've got a really talented guy. Shonn's going to do big things at UConn and (maybe) beyond. I'm looking forward to watching him on TV.

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