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Late-blooming big men lead Wisconsin, Cornell

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Some big men arrived pre-packaged. They dominated high school competition, made a pit stop in college and then headed off to the pros.

You won't find that with Wisconsin and Cornell on Sunday. Each features a late-blooming big guy whose performances likely will decide which team advances to the Sweet 16.

Cornell's Jeff Foote is the rarest of occurrences. He's a legitimate 7-foot, 265-pound banger in the Ivy League, though he took a roundabout way to get there.

Foote -- who grew up about 30 minutes south of Cornell's campus -- shot up from 6-foot-4 to 6-9 in the summer between his sophomore and junior year of high school, then sprouted another two inches before his senior year. Trouble was, he didn't know how to use his newfound height.

"I was very uncoordinated," he said. "Lanky. Awkward. I didn't have a lot of basketball skills."

A guy that tall has to be awfully ungainly to not attract any college interest. Foote was. Cornell coach Steve Donahue scouted Foote during his senior year and took a pass.

"I was sitting with a couple of Division III guys, and he was probably 170 [pounds]," Donahue said. "It was hard to imagine him being a college basketball player at any level."

Foote went to St. Bonaventure on an academic scholarship and walked on to the team, where teammates bullied him in practice. He realized then that he needed to get much stronger to have any future in the game.

While he focused on strength, his mother, Wanda, hatched a plan to get him somewhere better than St. Bonaventure, which is still recovering from the academic scandal that decimated the program earlier this decade. Wanda worked as a nurse at the hospital where injured Cornell player Khaliq Gant was recuperating from two dislocated vertebrae in his neck. She loved how the Big Red players and coaches constantly visited Gant. She wanted her son at a place that cared about each other that much.

Big Red guard Ryan Wittman remembers seeing Foote when he toured the school as a potential transfer. Foote, he said, wore a baggy T-shirt and might have been 205 pounds soaking wet. Point guard Louis Dale didn't think much of Foote after his first practice with the team.

"He couldn't dunk that well," Dale said. "I was like, 'He's seven feet tall and I can't even throw him an alley-oop.'"

But Foote kept developing his game and more importantly, hitting the weight room hard. By last summer, he had bulked up to 265 pounds.

"We'd play pickup games, and all our big guys were complaining about how much stronger he was," Wittman said. "Nobody could guard him, nobody could stop him."

That was the case all year in the Ivy League and even against top competition, as Foote more than held his own against Kansas center Cole Aldrich in January. He had 16 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in a first-round win over Temple.

His challenge will increase Sunday against Wisconsin's own nontraditional big man, Jon Leuer.

Like Foote, the Orono, Minn., native went through his own rapid vertical surge. Leuer was a 6-foot guard as a high school freshman. By his senior year, he stood 6-10. He handled the change a little more easily than Foote, though.

"I guess I lost some mobility, but at the same time I didn't have growing pains and stuff like that," Leuer said. "It was definitely a transition from being able to play on perimeter to being able to play in the post."

Donahue remembers trying to recruit Leuer to Cornell as a junior in high school, but Leuer became a coveted prospect the next year because of his enhanced height. Still, Leuer came to Wisconsin as a 200-pound string bean and spent much of his first two years hanging out on the wings. He's put on 30 pounds since then and now can play inside as well as out.

That makes him one of the more versatile frontcourt players in the Big Ten, as Leuer maintained his guard skills while gaining a center's body. He showed that in Friday's win over Wofford, knocking down the go-ahead 17-foot jumper with 17 seconds left, then helping poke the ball away from Terriers guard Cameron Rundles on the other end to preserve the victory.

"He's got a unique, diverse skill set," Badgers forward Keaton Nankivil said. "Now it's to the point where he's kind of a terror matchup for anybody he goes against, just because he can do so many different things. He has all the tools to really attack anybody."

Foote says Leuer is "like an Ivy League player, but more skilled." Leuer says he'll need to keep Foote from getting good position down low and using his bulk for easy baskets. Leuer would like to pull Foote outside on defense, but Donahue say Foote is athletic enough to guard the perimeter.

They may be late bloomers, but prospects for both are now booming.