Big Red rolls into Ivy League power

Updated: December 30, 2009, 2:50 PM ET
Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- Think Cornell hoops is nothing but bookish eggheads passing time on the court before studying for the next exam?

Smarten up.

Big Red is the brainy basketball bully of the Ivy League.

And it doesn't take a Nobel laureate -- of which Cornell has produced plenty -- to know this year's team can do more than dominate the Ancient Eight. A senior-laden team that already steamrolled Penn and Princeton out of their lengthy reigns atop the conference has more than a third straight NCAA tournament berth in mind.

The Big Red (10-2) believe if they get to the tournament, they can stick around for a second weekend and show Ivy Leaguers are more than a bunch of one-and-doners.

No Ivy team has won an NCAA tournament game since 1998, when fifth-seeded Princeton beat No. 12-seed UNLV, 69-57.

"We want to win in the tournament this year," leading scorer Ryan Wittman said. "Going there was nice. It was a lot of fun and everything, but we have higher aspirations this year."

Winning consistently in the Ivy League can prove as problematic as nailing a perfect SAT score. There are no basketball scholarships (tuition, room and board is more than $50,000 at Cornell), and the demanding academic standards further reduce an already small recruiting pool.

It takes a sharp eye for hidden talent and a willingness to look for players who might have escaped the scouting reports of not just the BCS conference teams, but notable mid-majors also looking to make their mark every March.

Ivy League teams eschew charter flights and "Big Monday" national TV matchups for conference games on Fridays and Saturdays to minimize the number of missed classes.

Building a winning program also takes patience. Ask coach Steve Donahue.

Donahue, a 10-year assistant under Fran Dunphy at Penn, won a total of 12 games his first two seasons at Cornell and had losing records his first six seasons.

The Quakers recently fired Dunphy's replacement, Glen Miller, after two straight losing seasons and a winless start to this one. But Cornell's administration stood behind Donahue and gave him time to build a contender.

"At Cornell, you don't have the luxury of trying to out-recruit somebody," Donahue said.

Cornell's faith was rewarded.

Cornell won the Ivy League title and advanced to the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons. Led by seniors Wittman, Jeff Foote, and Louis Dale, Big Red won at La Salle 78-75 on Tuesday for their eighth straight victory.

"I hope this team can play in any league at this point and be successful," Donahue said.

Wittman scored a career-high 34 points to become Cornell's all-time leading scorer. He needed 31 points to surpass John Bajusz (1983-87), who had 1,663. Wittman scored 23 points in the second half to finish 11 for 21 from the field, including 4 for 9 from 3-point range, and 8 for 9 from the free throw line.

Wittman, whose father, Randy, played and coached in the NBA, was more focused on the team than his accomplishments.

"Doesn't matter," Wittman said. "All that matters is we got the 'W' tonight."

Even with his famous pedigree, Wittman wasn't heavily recruited out of his Minnesota high school. He was a little frail, hadn't fully grown into his 6-foot-7 frame and a deep thigh bruise the summer going into this senior year limited his activity. When other teams moved on, Cornell's assistant coaches stuck with him.

Wittman sank a 30-footer at the overtime buzzer to beat Davidson 91-88 earlier this month at Madison Square Garden.

"They understand his role is to go shoot the ball and score for us," Donahue said. "He embraces it and his teammates embrace it."

The 7-foot Foote was another random recruit. His mother was the head nurse at the intensive care unit for former Big Red guard Khaliq Gant after an on-court collision nearly left him paralyzed. She was touched by how Cornell players and coaches rallied around Grant, and casually mentioned that her son was a 7-footer unhappy as a walk-on at St. Bonaventure.

She told Donahue, "I would love for my son to be in that environment."

All Foote has done is earn Ivy League defensive player of the year honors last year, add 5 inches to his vertical leap and become a double-double force.

How about Dale? He was a state triple-jump champion in high school in Birmingham, Ala., with virtually no basketball offers. He was uninterested in a walk-on opportunity at UAB, and sent a highlight tape to Cornell after a school brochure arrived in his mailbox. Dale, who majors in policy analysis and management, was Ivy League player of the year in 2007-08 and is the school's career assist leader.

"I didn't want the opportunity to just be a walk-on," Dale said. "I wanted to be on the team."

Three overlooked players with toughness, intelligence and something to prove have helped Cornell beat teams this year such as Alabama, Massachusetts, Bucknell, Saint Joseph's and St. John's. A Jan. 6 game at No. 1 Kansas looms.

Dale knew Cornell was destined for success his sophomore year when the Big Red led No. 9 Duke late in the first half and threw a serious upset scare into the Blue Devils before losing.

"I think that's when it kind of opened everybody's eyes like, wow, we can really achieve something," Dale said. "We knew that we were a young team then and if we kept improving each game, each practice, we could be something really special."

The senior class is 69-29 with two tourney berths in four seasons. Cornell has only two other NCAA appearances.

Another hitch in finding Ivy success? There's no second chance in a conference tournament to reach the field of 65. The Ivy League is the only conference that doesn't hold a postseason tournament to determine its champion.

Donahue believes the Ivy needs a tournament.

"I would love it for all these kids that don't get to experience a postseason," Donahue said. "After you lose three or four games in our league, your season's over. It's just not fair. These kids deserve an opportunity."

Donahue could find an opportunity at a bigger program if the Big Red keep adding titles. Dunphy made the leap from the Ivy to the Atlantic 10 in 2006 and has led Temple to two straight trips to the NCAA tournament and a No. 18 national ranking this season

Donahue, who was spurned by Penn in 2006, said he's not eager to move on.

"I'm not going to be one of these guys that doesn't understand how good my situation is," he said. "I know I have it good. I've got great kids and great players."

Once this accomplished senior class graduates, the talent level isn't dried out. Donahue called freshman forward Errick Peck "as talented as any player I've ever recruited in the Ivy."

For now, clipping those Ivy championship nets is the next goal. Then it's on to March.

"It's been fun just to build the program up," Dale said. "It's special."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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