Monday, February 15, 2010

Cornell basketball gets an 'A' in chemistry

My hope is everyone is off for this President's Day, though all the recent snow may have changed everyone's holiday plans (school snow days?!?). For me, I'm in the throws of finishing a few large projects. In the meantime, here is a column on Cornell basketball, who went 1-1 over the weekend.


Basketball coaches talk all the time about the importance of team chemistry. When a team is winning, it is always about work ethic and great kids and desire and, of course, team chemistry. Players on winning teams love one another. Players on losing teams transfer or, in the NBA, demand to be traded.

Cornell Coach Steve Donahue doesn't have to talk about team chemistry. His players live team chemistry. "If you tried to get your players to do this, ordered them to do it, no way would it happen," he said this week. "Our guys just did it. It was their idea. That's why it works."

Their idea, hatched two years ago, was to live together. All of them. In one house -- 14 college basketball players under one roof in an old house near the Cornell campus.

"The good news is it's a really big house," starting center Jeff Foote said. "We've all got our own rooms. Even so, the place does get pretty dirty a fair amount of the time."

No doubt. Donahue really doesn't care that much about his players' skills as housekeepers, though, especially given the results they've produced as basketball players the last three seasons. The Big Red has won back-to-back Ivy League titles and was 21-4 after Saturday night's 48-45 win over Princeton. It has road or neutral-site wins over Alabama, St. John's, Massachusetts, Saint Joseph's, Toledo, Davidson and La Salle. And its losses were to Seton Hall, at Pennsylvania in a slip-up Friday night, and at Kansas and Syracuse -- currently ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation.

The final score of the Kansas game was 71-66, and it was closer than that. Cornell led most of the game and leading scorer Ryan Wittman had a crack at a three-point shot in the final seconds that could have tied the score.

"Because of who we were playing and where we were playing and the fact that the last six or seven minutes were on national TV [ESPN switched to the game], I think I've had more feedback on that game than on all the other games I've coached here combined," Donahue said. "I think it surprised some people to see how good we are."

Cornell is good, even though it doesn't have a single national TV appearance scheduled this season. But no one is going to call the Big Red or Donahue an overnight success. This was a long time coming.

Donahue came to Cornell in the fall of 2000 after 10 seasons as an assistant coach under Fran Dunphy at Penn. The popular thinking then, as it has been throughout most of the Ivy League's history, was that third place was about as good as any Ivy League team not named Penn or Princeton could hope for most years. Columbia shared the league title with Princeton in 1968, Brown won it in 1986 and Cornell won it in 1988. In the other 37 seasons from Columbia's co-title through 2007, Princeton or Penn won or shared each championship.

"I knew in a place like this you don't build quickly," Donahue said. "You have to get kids who fit Cornell, not just kids with talent, because if they don't like the place, their talent isn't going to matter. We were lucky we got some kids to come who went out and convinced better kids to follow them, and they convinced better kids than that to come. By the time we got this senior class [high school class of 2006] we thought we had something going.

"And then we got Foote."

The key player in that 2006 recruiting class was Wittman, the son of former Indiana star and NBA player Randy Wittman. "I liked everything about the place when I visited," he said.

It was during that season that Foote transferred from St. Bonaventure. He was not, in any way, a typical transfer. Donahue had seen him play briefly in a high school tournament at Cornell. "He was probably 6-9 or 6-10 and might have weighed 170," he said. "I remember thinking he could pass the ball but he was so gangly and awkward. There were D-3 coaches watching him that day and none of them thought he was good enough for them." 

For the rest of the article from the The Washington Post site: Cornell basketball gets an 'A' in chemistry


Paul said...


The rules governing exceptional talents of the kind that the powerhouses get (Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State, Kansas, etc...) has made NCAA basketball more interesting in one aspect. Now schools such as Cornell (my alma mater by the way) and teams like the Kent State team of the early 2000s will be more likely to emerge in the NCAA tournament because a team that might not have the A-1 talent can be coaxed into realizing that if they stick together and build chemistry they can have a nice amount of success. I think the one-and-done rule, while it has hurt the big-time schools, has made it so smaller schools can use it as competitive advantage (though I must admit a good friend of mine should get the credit for this statement, I am simply echoing his assertion- Thanks Skern!). Who wants to play Cornell in the first round? Second round? If you're a bubble school or a so-so major, I'm thinking a team like Cornell can be your worst nightmare in the tournament. Though it is wierd because I thought there were fewer upsets in the recent tournaments than in the past. I don't have the numbers to back me up, but it sure seems this way.

Anonymous said...

Cornell: Where the men are men and the women are too,and the sheep are scared! Go Big Red!

John from Indiana said...

I have a sneaking hunch that the house occupied by fourteen Cornell basketball players is a far cry from the "Wildcat Lodge" in Lexington, KY.

Kevin Doyle said...

John, you, along with Welliston, are two of the most knowledgeable College hoops guys around...and I am not just saying that because you give mid-major teams some serious love.

Being a student at Holy Cross, I always appreciate your trips to the Hart Center and your comments regarding HC hoops.

Every serious College Basketball fan must read your book "The Last Amateurs"...this is what amateur athletics are all about. You did a superb job highlighting the challenges these kids and schools face every day competing at the D1 level.

Also, I have a blog of my own where I wrote about Cornell basketball not too long ago. Here is the URL for it:

Fantastic article about Big Red hoops by the way.


Glen said...

The atmosphere for games here is incredible - if the roads clear up you should come up for a road trip, John! We have great coffee shops, if that helps to tempt you...

Go Big Red!

Anonymous said...

Thanks - another incrediby banal column vomited from the mushy goo you call a brain. You are the John Daly of sportswriters - got lucky twice, and every other time you put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) it's an out and out disaster.

Nice blog, though. Really. Quality work.