Ranked Big Red have real shot to win in March

February, 2, 2010
Cornell's No. 25 ranking in this week's coaches' poll was deserved not because of the teams the Big Red have beaten, or even played, but because of what the Big Red could become in the next month.

This might be a step out of the norm for your traditional rankings. It's a projection based on what could be in store for the bracket in March.

Sure, Cornell smoked Harvard by 36 in Ithaca on Saturday. Normally, beating Harvard, even by 30-plus, is hardly enough to push a team into the Top 25.

But this is a new era in Cambridge, and for Cornell, it's the appreciation of a team that has the look of a real first-round winner.

The Big Red did have higher major wins at Alabama, at UMass and at St. John's. But they also lost at home to Seton Hall and at Syracuse and pushed Kansas at Phog Allen Fieldhouse as much as Kansas State did in Manhattan last weekend.

The coaches recognized that Cornell didn't need to beat a big-time opponent to earn a ranking. They can clearly see that this team has something special going on with a veteran lineup led by Ryan Wittman and Louis Dale on the perimeter and a scoring big man in the post in Jeff Foote.

"That's a team capable of making a Davidson kind of run like two years ago," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said, referring to the Wildcats' Elite Eight run led by Stephen Curry in 2008. "You could see them in the Sweet 16, and from there, anything is possible. They are very talented and have a lot of seniors. They've been in the tournament. They're legit. They pounded us. I voted for them in the Top 25 well before we played them."

Amaker said the balance the Big Red possess makes this Cornell team much different from previous Ivy League teams. That means Foote.

"He's the key to their team, and at the end of the day, if your shooters are cold, you can drop the ball inside and come away with something," Amaker said. "He can equalize things for you. He can block shots, he can score and make foul shots. I can see them being a force to be reckoned with."

The easy thing to do is to tear down Cornell as a possible NCAA first-round winner. Our ESPN research team provided some facts to try to dismiss Cornell's ranking and relevance -- the first time an Ivy League team other than Princeton or Penn was ranked since 1970.

Since Princeton won a first-round game as a five-seed in 1998, the Ivy League champ has bowed out in the first round 11 straight seasons. Only two of those games were decided by single digits.

Cornell, in the last two NCAAs, lost by 19 to Missouri and then by 24 to Stanford.

So of course we should just dump the Big Red and not consider them as a possible first-round winner, right?

First off, the seeds have mattered. Cornell got a 14-seed the last two seasons, while Penn received a 14, 15 and 13 and Princeton a 14 in 2004. Penn did have two 11s in a row in 2002 and '03, but Princeton had a 15 in 2001. The 2000 Penn team had a 13, and the '99 team had an 11. Cornell probably wouldn't be a lower number than 10, so the Big Red would be in a similar ballpark. A 15 is unlikely if the Big Red continue to win. A 14 is probably a stretch, too. So expect Cornell to fall in the 10- to 13-seed range.

But there are plenty of reasons to believe the losing streak won't continue in March.

"You have to judge those other teams by how they did in the preconference part of the season," Cornell coach Steve Donahue said. "Those other 11 teams hadn't fared as well or challenged for big wins. Our '94 team at Penn beat St. John's, Georgia and Michigan, so we were prepared to win in the NCAA."

A No. 11-seed Penn won a first-round game in 1994, beating No. 6 seed Nebraska before losing to No. 3 Florida in the second round.

"We're a much better team than last year," Donahue said. "We've add a player that started at Kentucky in [center] Mark Coury. [Guard] Max Groebe is healthy for us. Foote added 50 pounds. We've proven we're much more prepared for the NCAA tournament."

Donahue isn't getting ahead of himself and wants to reiterate that he's not thinking about the NCAA tournament. There is still plenty of work to do in the Ivy. Princeton has improved to 2-0 in the conference, and there is another date with Harvard in Cambridge on Feb. 19.

Donahue wants to embrace the ranking and prove the team is worthy by playing well over the next 10 games.

"We don't have a conference tournament, and every weekend for us is a mini-tournament," said Donahue, a former Penn assistant. "I've been trained to think like that for the last 20 years."

For the Ivy dream scenario (two league bids), there is really only one path: Cornell (34 in the RPI) would have to win out but lose at Harvard (67 RPI). The Crimson couldn't drop another game and would have to win in a neutral-site, late-game playoff with Cornell.

And even that wouldn't be a cinch for the Big Red.

The Crimson are led by Jeremy Lin but have a younger set around him. On Saturday, Amaker said it was the first time Harvard players got a sniff of what an intense atmosphere is like on the road in the league.

"We're still trying to find ourselves, we still have a lot of growth to have happen," Amaker said. "You can see [Cornell's] focus. They have seniors. They've won before."

And if Amaker is right, Cornell will win again -- in March.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?