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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cornell-Kentucky: Classic Match-Up Looms in Sweet 16

Why, you ask?

Because Kentucky coach John Calipari, to many, represents all that is wrong with college basketball. Sorry, John Feinstein, but I'm with Bob Knight all the way on this one. There's something amiss when you leave the two college programs you led amid the fog of scandal. Have it happen once, you might be unlucky, suffer from a bad booster. Have it happen twice, well, you might have a problem of your own making. Moreover, Kentucky opened up the vault for Calipari, making a statement that it would do whatever it takes to bring home a national title. So, for lack of a better villain, Kentucky represents, today, the evil empire of college hoops (even if it has very talented, and, yes, likable kids in the program).

Cornell represents the stark contrast to Kentucky. Its coach, Steve Donahue, worked his way up through the great network that is Philadelphia basketball. He helped the legendary DII coach Herb Magee (the winningest men's basketball coach in NCAA history) at Philadelphia Textile, now Philadelphia University. Then he worked with Fran O'Hanlon (then an assistant under Fran Dunphy at Penn, now the head coach at Lafayette) and Fran Dunphy at Penn (he assisted Dunphy for 10 years at Penn and helped coach some great teams). And then he took the Cornell job against great odds, perhaps the toughest in the country, because prior to his winning his first Ivy title three seasons ago in Ithaca, Penn and Princeton had combined to win all but two Ivy titles in 35 or so years (Cornell did win one -- in 1988). So, to come to a hockey school with not much of a tradition in basketball, to win three Ivy titles in a row and then beat Temple and Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament (becoming the first Ivy team to get to the Round of 16 since 1979, when Penn went to the Final Four) is one of the greatest coaching jobs in the past, well, 30 years.


And he did it without basketball scholarships, without much help from boosters, without special living quarters or travel accommodations for his players, well, without a whole lot of hype, jazz, spectacle, or anything else. These kids play their league schedule on back-to-back nights, Fridays and Saturdays, in order not to miss too much class. They travel by bus for league play, and the Ithaca to Philadelphia ride never is a lot of fun. They have two grueling weekends every year, playing Penn and Princeton on back to back nights. Sure, it's not Vanderbilt, Florida or Mississippi State, but within the league these are as hard-fought contests as in any league. And trying to beat Penn and Princeton on back-to-back nights is like trying to beat Duke and Carolina on consecutive nights in the ACC, but they don't play back-to-back nights in the ACC or any other league for that matter.

Cornell has no McDonald's All-Americans. Their league doesn't have a TV contract, and they don't appear all that much on television, and, when they do, outside the NCAA tournament, it's on ESPNU. Generally speaking, their kids don't plan on going into the NBA; they're students first and foremost.

(That's not to say that the Kentucky kids aren't good kids, aren't smart, don't care about their studies, etc. But those kids' priorities have to be a bit different when four of the players are projected to be first-round picks in the NBA draft. By the way, if I were a projected first-round pick in that draft, I'd make it a priority to improve my basketball skills if that's what I'm most talented in).

So, you have the student-athletes of Cornell against a very talented and explosive Kentucky team. Can Cornell stay with the Wildcats? Can they do the unthinkable and win?

Well, they scored a ton of points on two teams -- Temple and Wisconsin -- that are supposed to be excellent defensive teams and they beat those teams rather badly. In Kentucky, they'll be facing a young team that has great athleticism and quickness, but a team that generally played (relatively) close games during the regular season (winning league games by about 12 but not really blowing anyone out). That quickness could be a shock for the Big Red, but if they stay in their game, get out to a quick start and take a lead, they'll force Kentucky to play from behind and to press themselves. If they can continue to cut the game in half -- staying close at the 10-minute and half-time marks and then keep it close with 10 minutes to go -- they can win the ball game.

Because to suggest anything else would be silly, given what the Big Red have done so far. Cornell has to be careful not to rest on its laurels, not to get too giddy over a tremendous accomplishment. Kentucky has to refrain from getting overconfident. I'm sure that while the coaches are pounding the players on the fact that someone forgot to tell the Cornell players that the Ivy entrant is supposed to play gallantly for about 28-32 minutes before losing the first-round game by 15 and that the Big Red are formidable and can beat them, deep down the kids in Lexington have to be thinking that given their pedigrees and their performance in the tournament to date, they can crush Cornell easily. Sure, you can tell yourself that the kids will believe the coaches and bear down hard, but kids are kids, and they'll believe what they want to believe and the hype about their exploits in the tournament so far.

And, if you don't think so, then what's to explain, to some degree, how underdogs such as St. Mary's, Washington and Northern Iowa have advanced so far. Yes, they're good teams, but you have to believe at for some period of time their opponents looked at the name on the jersey and their seeding and figured all they needed to do was show up and play a half-decent game.

Big mistake.

Sure, Kentucky will be favored, and perhaps by double digits, given their great play in the first two games, their #1 seeding, and Cornell's being from the Ivy League. And they might win by 15 or 20. And then there won't be much of a story except to say that Cinderella's carriage turned into a pumpkin, with Kentucky being the enforcer of the midnight curfew. That's a familar tale.

But every now and then a Gonzaga gets to the regional final and a George Mason gets to the Final Four. It may be that St. Mary's and Northern Iowa are better set up for that type of run, but after their stellar play -- winning two games convincingly -- you can't count out the Cornell Big Red. They are playing great basketball and are playing confidently.

And they're playing for all the kids and all the conferences who annually get patronized or dissed on the major networks, by the tournament committee, and by the greedy athletic directors who will argue with you until their blue in the face that there should be 96 teams in the tournament or that conferences with teams like St. Mary's, Northern Iowa and Cornell shouldn't get automatic bids if the tournament were to remain the same size. They're playing for the alums of those schools, too, and for the alums of all of the conferences who have to suffer from the slobbering that goes on about teams in the 6 "power" conferences.

Sure, Kentucky travels well and will have a lot of fans in the building. But I've been to 2 Final Fours and one regional final tournament, and I can tell you that the local fans will root for the underdog of the four teams in the group -- the team with the best story -- especially if it smells an upset. Should Cornell keep it close or take the lead, the bulk of the fans in the building will be rooting for the Big Red.

Loudly and proudly. I've seen it happen during my days in Philadelphia, especially with a regional final in about 1978 that featured Maryland, Syracuse, Georgetown and Iowa. Somehow, some way, the Philadelphia fans united behind Lute Olson's Iowa Hawkeyes, which won the region. There was no reason to root for them -- all of the other schools had better connections to the area -- but the fans did. They were the underdog, they played smart, and they played very well.

I'm sure that Coach Cal and his assistants are trying to warn the Kentucky players about the perils of playing Cornell. Steve Donahue probably doesn't have to do as much work in this area. Kentucky's reputation precedes itself, and showing a few minutes of highlights from Kentucky's first two games will make believers out of even basketball athiests and agnostics.

This NCAA tournament shows why they play the games. There are many good teams out there, and there are many kids who are eager to show that they belong with the over-hyped power conference schools. While the networks might be lamenting the loss of Villanova, Georgetown and Kansas (among others), hoops purists are overjoyed at the presence of St. Mary's, Northern Iowa and Cornell.

And we're hoping that those schools cause the network executives more pain and the tournament selection committee more embarrassment.

Sure, it's a long shot for any of those three teams -- especially Cornell -- to get to the regional final.

But they've gotten this far, haven't they?

And they have a taste of slaying the giants now, too.

The giants should tread lightly and carefully.

Because someone forgot to tell the Davids of the hoops world that they don't belong, that they shouldn't be here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article ... I am so pumped to watch this game

8:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Overall this is a well-written piece, although it seems a bit jaded against UK. There are two points which I disagree with however. First, I seriously doubt there will be more fans cheering on Cornell that UK. There is one thing that amazes anyone who plays Kentucky, and that is the sheer number of fans who will show up no matter where the game is played. The arena will be a blanket of blue. Second, your comment regarding grades is just a bit misleading. Yes, Cornell students are students first. Yes, most Kentucky all-star players are basketball players first, BUT you seem to be overlooking Patrick Patterson, who plays Kentucky's demanding (not in the way of opponents, but in the way of scheduling) schedule, and still carries a 3.0. It is said that he studies on the bus while others talk or play. Sure, he is no Cornell student, but be careful belittling a well-rounded player like this.

8:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love how all the KU fans stick up for their one player who carries a 3.0. At Cornell, there are no gimme majors like 'sports administration' for the athletes to go hide in.

9:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a 'cuse fan whose lives in 'cuse and I'm gonna toss my support behind the Big Red next week. Everyone in CNY needs to come our an support Cornell. Let's show them how tough it is to play in the Dome when the crowd is against you.

9:14 PM  
Blogger LDUTheCoach said...

The Mid-West Bracket is wide open now that Kansas and Georgetown are knocked out. Many would think the Buckeyes can now coast through the Mid-West and onto the final four but they’ll have to get past Tennessee first, who has already beaten Kansas and Kentucky this year. Clearly Northern Iowa is not a team to take lightly even if they don’t move on, watch out. Any team can win on any given day.

Don’t know who go take? Check out these in depth predictions for every NCAA sweet sixteen game @

Who do you got moving onto the Final Four from the Mid-west? I got Ohio State, and not because I am running with the favourite, but due to the fact that Evan Turner has three other players in Diebler, Buford and Lauderdale.

9:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome article. GO RED

10:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Im a long time UK fan and I have to admit, this article was a great read. Was it a little anti-UK? Sure it was. Who cares. If I was writing about a Kansas game it would be anti-Kansas.

UK has a ton of talent and should win this game convincingly. The problem, as the author pointed out, is that the UK players know that too. They'll have to dig in and play it like it's their last game. That's how Cornell will play it.

Every possession counts in this game and if the Cats don't play that way, it could be a long day.

Go Cats!

11:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

KU certainly travels well... but the poster saying that the arena will be a sheet of blue may fail to realize the proximity of Syracuse to Ithaca... it's practically a home game. Add to that the fact that a strong majority of alumni either stay close to Ithaca or have enough money to travel for a day and I dare say Red may outnumber Blue come Thursday in the stands.

11:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe the UK coaches and team should watch the Penn vs. Cornell game films from their game 1.

12:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are there so many confused commentators here that they don't know UK from KU?

Second, I never doubted that Cornell students were more focused on school that UK. If you will read my comment again you will see that. I just thought the author of the article didn't give some credit where it was due.

Last, to call me a UK fan is stretching it. Do I live in KY? Yes. Do I like seeing UK win? Yes. How many games have I watched in the last 5 years? Three. I am merely making some observations about the original post.

8:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...all that is wrong with college basketball..."

John Calipari may be a lot of things, but this is a bit extreme.

Blame David Stern, the NBA, the AAU system or certainly the nefarious "agent" types that vye for the upside of young, usually economically underpriviled athletes. This is what's wrong with college basketball - it's become too much of a business.

If facts are actually important to you, reach out to the mom's and dad's of the kids that have played for, been mentored by and grown up under Calipari and you'll might just get a new perspective, however inconvenient to your agenda this may be.

Speaking of facts, it's my understanding that Patterson graduated in 3 years and the superstar, Wall, maintains the highest GPA on the team.

No, UK is not the Ivy League and these kids are not likely to become investment bankers or management consultants, but that's not why the chose UK...they chose it to prepare for their chosen profession - playing basketball - and no one in the college game today is better at preparing young men for this profession than John Calipari.

"...all that is wrong with college basketball..."


9:52 PM  
Anonymous rspeedy27 said...

I sure hope Cornell plays its best game of the decade against KU (kansas) and then play UK (Kentucky)

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a graduate of another Ivy League school and a huge fan, it is a shame this article is so polarizing. I am a fan of Cornell and its performance in this tournament, but I have also been a longstanding UK fan. The reality of NCAA basketball today is to have a lot of "one and doners." This is what it is, and no program that could get Wall, Cousins, Bledsoe, and Orton in a recruiting class would turn any of those players down. Both teams make for compelling story lines in their own manner--UK for the most talented four freshmen ever compiled on a team since the Fab five, and Cornell for their four year players that have perfected team play. I will be rooting for UK, but against any other team I would have rooted for Cornell.
There is no call for academic snobbery in these comments either. UK has a history of graduating some excellent student-athletes, one of whom comes to mind that played significant minutes on UK's 1996 championship team), was a 4.0 English major, and later attended medical school at Columbia. Patterson is graduating in 3 years when he had the opportunity to be an NBA first round draft pick last year.
On Thursday, may the best team win!

11:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too much fluff. Not enough realism. UK wins easy. There is nothing classic about this game. It'll be an afterthought in a month. The Ivy League sob story is a cliche in itself. Oh poor rich white guys with silver spoons, such blue collar backgrounds you come from! You guys are so great! You poor Kentucky players are evil. Seriously?

8:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Half of what you say is probably true. Because Cornell has earned it's niche in academia. I don't think this will be an IQ test, I beleive it will be a basketball game. So get ready for a good A-- kicking and be thankful your non burger boys got as far as they did. I have enjoyed watching them but wuthout divine intervention it's over.

8:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

diterHalf of what you say is probably true. Because Cornell has earned it's niche in academia. I don't think this will be an IQ test, I beleive it will be a basketball game. So get ready for a good A-- kicking and be thankful your non burger boys got as far as they did. I have enjoyed watching them but wuthout divine intervention it's over.

8:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cornell's biggest advantage is that it has played together for four years. Yes, UK has the athletes, but all five starters have played together for one season (this season). I recall UKs 92 season and the loss to Duke, the Cornell starters were more athletic than the UK starters except for Mashburn. The 92 team was loaded with senior starters, but most of it's players were Ivy leaguers at best (Coury ex UK player is a prime example).
I think this article would have been better served as blue collar experience versus talented intellectuals. In the world of college basketball UK are the superior intellects per se while Cornell are the blue collar hard driven students of perseverence.

2:09 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Hi everyone:

Thanks for your comments. Much appreciated. At the end of the day, the game is played on the floor, not in articles, blog posts, comments or the thoughts of talking heads on ESPN or CBS. This tournament has proven just that -- or else St. Mary's, Northern Iowa, Cornell and Washington wouldn't have made the Sweet 16.

Thanks, again, for your thoughts.

2:47 PM  
Anonymous CU student said...

It should be noted that Cornell is currently on spring break, so while the game will be played close to Ithaca, don't expect an overwhelming number of fans. It's a shame it worked out that way.

8:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just an FYI. that Iowa team that everyone got behind was in 1980 (not 1978). Ronnie Lester was the star, but got hurt and lost to Louisville in the Final 4 in Indy.

6:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uh, Wall and Patterson have the highest grade point averages on the team. Really? Patterson was there before Cal, so I'll give him props. Wall, taking the easiest classes offered, could not care less about grades. He wants to go to the NBA. Period!!! Don't suggest that Cal runs a "scholar" program. He runs a recruiting farm for the NBA that is very successful.

2:48 PM  
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