Cornell Rejects Cinderella Label
JACKSONVILLE - Cornell isn't your typical storybook team.
Though the Big Red became the first Ivy League school to reach the Sweet 16 since Penn went to the Final Four in 1979, Cornell expected to be here. The Sweet 16 was the team's preseason goal.
"The goal's been readjusted," senior center Jeff Foote said after No. 12 Cornell knocked out No. 4 Wisconsin 87-69 in Sunday's second-round East Regional game. The Big Red face No. 1 Kentucky on Thursday in Syracuse, about an hour from their Ithaca campus, though their 13,700 students will be on spring break.
"We've got eight seniors and we want to take this ride as long as we can because after this it's just nothing but babies and memories," said senior point guard Louis Dale after scoring 26 points.
Cornell (29-4) dominated the top two defensive teams in the tournament, only trailing once - the opening three minutes against No. 5 Temple on Friday.
"We don't consider ourselves a Cinderella team," senior forward Jon Jaques said. "I think we're one of the best teams in the country."
Why? Their experience. Cornell is led by four senior starters. Their sharpshooting. They're the nation's best three-point shooting team. Their complete game, infused with toughness and moxie. Their confidence, gained from a rugged non-conference schedule, which included close losses to Kansas and Syracuse, two No. 1 seeds.
Their tight bond. The team lives together in an off-campus house. And Steve Donahue, who has spent 20 years coaching in the Ivy League. But ask any player about the biggest key to their success and they smile. This collection of first-rate clowns (they have used "phantom" balls in warm-ups) play the game for the best reason of all - one another.
"It's overlooked a lot of times, chemistry that you can't really teach," Jaques said. "It's more fun to play when you're playing with your best friends."
Said Donahue, 47: "They just love playing basketball with each other, more so than representing Cornell, more so than playing in the NCAA tournament. I know it's not like that everywhere - it can't be like that everywhere - but I'm fortunate that I can coach a group like this."
Cornell, in the field for the third consecutive year, had never won a game in the NCAA tournament in five tries before dispatching Temple, the first tournament win by an Ivy League school since Princeton in 1998. Their 18-point rout of Wisconsin was the largest margin for an Ivy team in 42 years.
It's not surprising the Big Red entered the tournament as loose as the clothing that once hung off Foote's 7-foot frame. When they took the court too early for warm-ups before the Temple game, they weren't allowed to use basketballs. (Teams have to wait an hour before tip-off.) Instead they used "phantom" balls. They formed their lines and shot imaginary layups and jumpers. Even did a few crossovers. When warming up too soon before the Wisconsin game, they got even more resourceful. They rolled cellophane into a ball and used that instead.
The Big Red also are a collection of players ignored by high-level programs, with one atypical exception. As for Foote, four years ago he was a walk-on freshman on an academic scholarship at St. Bonaventure. His mother, Wanda, a nurse, was working at the hospital where Cornell player Khaliq Gant was recovering from a serious neck injury. Impressed by how caring Gant's teammates were, she became friendly with the group. She told an assistant coach that her son was a player, too.
As a result of his mother's chance meeting, Foote transferred, all 205 pounds of him.
"A skinny big guy, a project," is how senior forward Ryan Wittman remembered him. "All the work he's put in, it's been a great transformation."
Cornell is such a lethal outside shooting team - 61.1(PERCENT) from the field against Wisconsin - in large part because of Foote's passing ability. Once the ball goes to Foote, he either turns to the basket or kicks it outside.
"It seemed like every one of my baskets was coming off a ball screen or a dribble hand-off from (Foote)," said Wittman, who scored 24 points and made 10 of 15 shots.
"In a way, without her I wouldn't be here," said Foote, now listed at 265 pounds. "It's just been a heck of a ride."
Wittman has a distinguished basketball pedigree - his father Randy is a former NBA player and Indiana star whose Hoosiers won the 1981 national title and is now an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards. Still, no Big Ten schools looked his way.
"We got lucky," Donahue said. "He had a deep thigh bruise going into his senior year and he got overlooked because he didn't look athletic enough to play at the next level."
Now the Ivy League player of the year just might have a shot at playing at another "next level."
After the team watched Friday Night Lights recently, Dale said his teammates wanted him to invoke the babies and memories line in the postgame news conference. "That was my goal," he said. Dale's story seems something straight out of the movie as well.
When Dale, from Birmingham, Ala., was bypassed by Southern schools, he put together a highlight tape and a book of accomplishments and sent it to coaches. Donahue remembers it, since it was like a "sixth-grader's project," compete with construction paper and cut-out letters.
"Cornell was really the only one that responded," Dale said.
Donahue looked at his credentials and said, "Great grades, great player, what's the catch?"
Donahue thought he was going to have to resort to a full-court press to woo Dale, but when he arrived for his official visit, Dale handed the coach his application and a $400 check from his mom. It was the application fee.
Donahue shook his head as he told the story. "Who does that?"
Then there's perhaps the most unlikely story of all. Forward Mark Coury was a starter for blue-blood, deep-pocketed Kentucky, but inexplicably to everyone but him, decided to transfer for academics. Who does that?
"There was disarray with the coaching situation (Billy Gillispie took over for Tubby Smith), and I decided the best situation for me was academics," said the finance major who has had a 4.0 grade point average at both schools.
One day, Donahue got a call from the team's liaison with the admissions office about Coury. "He says, this guy's dad is telling me that his son started at Kentucky and he wants to transfer," Donahue said.
" 'This kid is a spectacular student, never got less than an A in his life. I said, 'OK we'll take him.' "
Since his transfer, he's joked with teammates about hoping to play Kentucky in the tournament.
"When I saw the brackets, I said this could play out," Coury said.
The closest Cornell has come is during the 2008 tournament, when they walked past the Kentucky team in the gym.
"I can remember our first year in the tournament, walking by Kentucky and we overheard one of their players say, 'Man, they look like a high school team,' so we give (Coury) a hard time about that," Wittman said.
Though Kentucky vs. Cornell might seem like a mismatch, those who doubt Cornell do so at their own risk.
"Cornell did everything that they've been pretty much doing all year," said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan. "They found different ways to score and it's tough when you shoot 52(PERCENT) in the first half and you're still down 12. They can beat you in so many ways."
Wisconsin (24-9) had held opponents to 56 points. The 87 the Badgers gave up was the most in regulation in four years.
Given Coury has seen college basketball's two extremes, he's an expert on the topic.
"There's a lot of emphasis of trying to get to the next level there," he said. "Here it's down to the roots of basketball, playing for the team, having a fun time."
He has seen how both halves live, and wouldn't change a thing.