The 2009-10 season was an unforgettable one for Steve Donahue’s Cornell squad. On their way to a Sweet 16 berth, including a tournament game in Syracuse, the Big Red beat Alabama, UMass, Temple, Wisconsin, St. John’s and put a scare into Kansas on the Jayhawks’ home floor.
Once the season ended, however, things changed in a way that is to be expected from successful teams from non-Power Six conferences: The robust senior class led by Ryan Witman, Louis Dale and Jeff Foote graduated. Donahue made a major leap to helm the program at Boston College. Back in Ithaca, in stepped Bill Courtney from Virginia Tech and several players began the transition from bench player to starter. This team is night and day from last season’s squad.
At 2-4, Cornell has lost some close games and gutted out a couple decent, but no one they have played to this point has the firepower of their tough schedule from last season. Despite the non-con sluggishness by SU, Tuesday night’s game against the Orange presents one of the toughest challenges the Big Red will face all season, the other being upstart Minnesota later this week.
Like last season, this edition of Cornell is more comfortable in a game at a slow-to-moderate pace, not forcing themselves into a track meet. They average around 70 possessions in each of their last four games, a rate that keeps them fresh on defense, where they have allowed just 66 points per game. They’ve also let up less than one point per defensive possession in all but one contest so far (a loss to Seton Hall).
The key for SU is to get Cornell running more than they want to with defensive pressure to create turnovers and easy transition opportunities. The Orange will also be able to get ahead by cleaning up on the glass like they should (the Big Red averages a measly 28.5 rebounds per game). However, SU must balance their comfort running with smart decisions from Scoop Jardine, who runs the backcourt. Scoop has shot just 8-37 in his last three games; while SU is trying to find scoring consistency, I’m fairly confident that Jardine putting up 12 shots a game isn’t going to improve the team in the long run. Brandon Triche also needs to continue to be assertive. Against Georgia Tech, he posted his highest scoring total since his 16-point game against Canisius, which came on the heels of Jim Boeheim calling for him to be more aggressive.
In the frontcourt, look for Kris Joseph to become more consistent when matched against undersized 6’4 senior Max Groebe. In the paint, Rick Jackson should have a field day with Adam Wire, who hardly qualifies as a forward checking in at 6’5. While bigger opponents will eventually mitigate Baye Moussa Keita’s effectiveness, Tuesday will not be one of those times. The mismatches across the paint way so heavily in SU’s favor that even Fab Melo should be able to make some kind of positive impact.