Cornell smashes perceptions

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Cornell guard Ryan Wittman and the rest of his Big Red teammates are moving into the second round.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Cornell guard Ryan Wittman started to spout the old one-game-at-a-time cliché when asked about his team's NCAA tournament future Thursday afternoon. Then he started chuckling.

The oddness of the answer must have struck him. When was the last time an Ivy League school had to guard against looking ahead in March?

We may need to rethink a lot of preconceived conceptions if the Big Red are going to play like they did in a thoroughly impressive 78-65 undressing of No. 5 seed Temple on Thursday.

"To the rest of the world, this might have been an upset," center Jeff Foote said. "But not to us."

You paid attention to Cornell this year when it cracked the Top 25 and when it battled Kansas to the wire in Lawrence in January. But did you know it was actually this good?

Temple is no slouch. The Owls went 29-5, won the Atlantic 10 regular season and conference titles and beat Villanova this season. Many people thought they deserved better than a No. 5 seed.

Yet Cornell controlled the game from the opening tip, first by pounding the ball in to the 7-foot Foote and driving to the basket as Temple concentrated on stopping the 3-point shot. That's why the Big Red shot a sizzling 68.4 percent in the first half en route to taking a 37-29 lead into intermission.

When Temple tried to adjust in the second half, Cornell banged home seven 3-pointers, including three in a row in one crucial early stretch. Cornell ran the dribble handoff to perfection with Foote most of the game. When the Owls stretched out their defense, Foote found cutters for layups. When they stayed underneath Foote, Louis Dale (21 points) and Wittman (20) drilled 3s.

"They looked great out there running their offense," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said in admiration.

Cornell led by as many as 19 points in the second half, and even Wittman admitted that margin surprised him. The result, however, was not unexpected for a team playing in the NCAA tournament for the third straight time.

"That's the difference between the last few years and this year," said Dale, whose team lost to Stanford by 24 points in 2008 and by 19 to Missouri last March. "We came into this game confident, and we expected to win."

Not just confident, but loose. Players joked around during Thursday's media session, not at all in awe of the environment. When they hit the court early for warm-ups Friday and were told by NCAA officials that they couldn't touch the basketballs yet, they teasingly went through some phantom layup drills.

This group is extremely comfortable around one another. Most were barely recruited -- Foote began his career as a walk-on at St. Bonaventure, and Dale personally delivered his highlight tape to coach Steve Donahue after no one else showed interest. Thirteen players -- including all the seniors -- and a team manager share a 14-bedroom house just off campus.

"I may never coach a group this special again," Donahue said. "And one that can compete on the national stage."

Still, the Ivy League is supposed to dominate debate contests, presidential races and job searches, not NCAA tournament games. The Ancient Eight's last March Madness moment in the sun was Princeton's upset of UCLA in 1996 on the most famous backdoor pass ever delivered. Since then, the Ivy had lost in the first round 11 straight years, the longest active losing streak by any conference coming into Friday.

Cornell needed no Princeton-style late heroics. In the locker room after the game, Donahue told the players they should be excited about the moment, but that it's not over yet.

"He wants more," Wittman said.

More than one win from an Ivy League team? It's time to consider that as a real possibility.