NCAA Tournament Preview: Cornell

What's in store for the Stanford Cardinal on Thursday afternoon in Anaheim, California in the first round of the NCAA Men's Tournament? Columnist Jeff Fawcett gives the Bootleg faithful an in-depth look at the Ivy League champion Cornell Big Red.

At first glance, Stanford vs. Cornell looks like a classic matchup of power vs. finesse, low post offense vs. outside shooting, frontcourt muscle vs. backcourt agility. Well, I have news for you. It looks that way on second and third glance, too. Not every game is a murder mystery or a CSI episode, with twists and turns and "wow, I didn't see that coming" moments. Sure, every little thing is important in a toss-up game. But when looking at a #3 seed vs. a #14 seed there is no need to wait for the DNA tests, the guy holding the bloody ax usually did it.

For the Big Red to upset the Cardinal in The Brain Game, they must successfully pull off the two obvious things.

First up, the arc.

Shoot lots of threes, and make them count.

They need a truly considerable amount.

Not two, not three, not even a few.

The Ivy boys will need a whole slew.

Why yes, I did just see Horton, why do you ask?

Cornell is the best three-point shooting team in the tournament, making an impressive 41.4% of their 19.7 attempts per game. That is a bit over 24 points per game from beyond the arc. To pull off the win they'll need to at least match that 24 figure – without needing 30 attempts to get there. Stanford allows 33.5% from beyond the arc, a figure that is 32nd among all tourney teams. Cornell faced a schedule ranked 256th, Stanford's was 56th. It is safe to say that the Big Red will be facing far better perimeter defense than they are used to. From the stats and the film they clearly have guys that can knock down open shots, the question is can they get enough good looks while stepping up in class.

Second, don't get killed inside.

That doesn't mean holding the Lopi to 20 or 25 points, that isn't a realistic goal. It means not giving up 40 points and 20 boards and having two guys foul out in the process of guarding them. Clearly Cornell hasn't faced anyone as big or as skilled as the Lopez twins. The closest they've come, as fate would have it, is Zoubek at Duke. His 2-4 from the floor in 10 minutes isn't evidence of anything, but the 42-30 rebound margin they allowed to a mediocre rebounding Blue Devil squad might be. Their 2nd toughest game was on the road at Syracuse, they were beaten on the boards in that one 52-37. On the season, Cornell was +1.2 per game on the boards, which ranks 47th among the field of 65. Stanford's +8 ranks 3rd. Houston, we have a problem.

Those two road games against legitimate power teams are actually the biggest positive for Cornell. Losing by 14 at Duke is not a bad result, neither is losing by 16 at Syracuse. They made 16 of 38 three pointers in those two games, mighty fine shooting (just not enough of it). Furthermore, 7'0" St. Bonny transfer Jeff Foote wasn't eligible to play until their seventh game, Cuse was game eight, Duke was game 11. His 8.1 points, 6.4 boards and 1.4 blocks on the season were achieved in just 21 minutes a game, not bad for a 2 ½ year layoff. Clearly he was a project, after all, how many seven footers start their collegiate careers as walk-ons at St. Bonaventure, redshirt and then transfer to an Ivy? Needless to say, facing an NBA lottery pick is a step up from his high school days in tiny Spencer, NY.

The book on beating Stanford has always been "pressure the guards," at least since Brevin Knight departed. If likely to lose the battle of the boards, well, you'd better win the turnover battle to even out the shot attempts. Memphis, Tennessee, Duke – they are 4.4 - 5.4 turnovers per game better than their very tough opponents. Stanford killer Siena leads the field with a +6.3 margin. Louisville last season was +2.5; combine that with Stanford's -2.9 and, well, we all know what happened.

Cornell is barely in positive territory at +0.7 per game, while Stanford has vastly improved this season to +0.5. In other words, with no turnover advantage and a likely beating on the boards the Big Red is facing a deficit in shot attempts. Maybe FTs will help? Uh. NO, in capital letters. While Cornell is money from the line, shooting an outstanding 76.3% (1st in the field), they attempt only 18.6 per game to Stanford's 22.4. Just can't see a net positive points from the line for the underdogs.

One hidden factor they do have going for them is found in ESPN Magazines' annual "Giant Killer" feature. Defining a GK as any non-major that beats a team seeded at least five spots higher, they studied the 20 GKs from the last 5 tourneys and compared their stats to a control group of teams that failed to slay the giant. The result was 8 key characteristics, with 9 possible points. Cornell's score of 8 ties for the highest of any team in this year's field. Hitting threes at least two percentage points better than their opponents, balanced scoring, winning by over 7.5 a game, NOT relying on a big margin from the foul line – all part of the formula. The only item they missed was not having two senior starters. (for the curious, BYU, Kent State and St. Mary's were the others with 8).

As far as individual players go, Cornell clearly relies upon two stars and plenty of role players.

PG Louis Dale – the Ivy League player of the year is the #1 worry for Stanford. The 5'11" Birmingham, AL native is an elite athlete (45'4" triple jump in high school) who fills up the box score, at 13.8 points, 4.4 boards and 5.0 assists makes for a nice line. He broke 20 in 3 of their last 4 and is also nails from the line with a gaudy 90.6% mark. Many of the open looks Cornell gets come off his drives, stopping his penetration is priority #1 for the Cardinal.

SF Ryan Wittman – another 1st team All-Ivy, Wittman is a marksman with good size for the position at 6'6". 46.6% from deep is impressive in an empty gym, particularly when over half his shots were from deep. He's a double digit machine, getting his 15.4 night after night, and another money guy from the line at 86%. Expect him to get a large helping of Fred.

SG Adam Gore – the prototype Ivy leaguer, an undersized, white shooting guard who does one thing exceptionally well. He shoots lights out. 41.6% from deep, he made 57 threes and just 19 twos, a fairly remarkable ratio. He even tops the previous two guys from the line, knocking in 65 of 70 for 93%. One thing I noticed from the film – he sets up deep and jumps into his 3 point shots, landing at least a foot ahead of his takeoff point. He needs space to get that deadly jumper off, Stanford needs to just stay on him and ignore the threat of him driving. His 10 ppg was pretty consistent, 19 was his season high (in Cornell's high game of 94).

The next three guys are a three man rotation at the PF/C spots, with Foote being the 6th man

F Jason Hartford – here's the beef. 6'9", 245. Boards, converts from in close with a nice 58% overall, can also hit the jumper and has 13 made threes this season. Your solid, vertical measured in playing cards, unsung big guy. An eight and four in 20 minutes guy.

F Alex Tyler – another solidly built banger, with the same numbers as Hartford, but only 6'7" and without the deep threat. 5.2 fouls per 40 minutes doesn't bode well for guarding someone 5" taller.

C Jeff Foote – already mentioned above, he's coming on late with two double-doubles in his last five games. 30 blocks in just 21 games of halftime play gives them some hope against the twins, but giving up at least 30 pounds. Rare case where the usual 6th man may be the key to the game.

SG Geoff Reeves – the only other guy likely to play significant minutes, Reeves is a 6'5" guard with wonderfully symmetrical shooting stats. 18-37 from inside the arc, 18-37 from outside the arc. That is a 44.7% mark so he's another perimeter guy to worry about.

Cornell drastically shortened their bench in their last two games, each of them tight road wins. Expect a seven man rotation barring severe foul trouble.

Lastly, look for coach Steve Donahue to employ a wide variety of defenses. He has shown creativity in the past in switching from man to zone to occasional zone traps. I'm betting on a 2/3 zone, 1/3 man ratio with some odds and ends thrown in just to change things up. Personally, I'd collapse the zone to black hole levels (or in this case, white hole) and hope that Stanford has an off night from outside.

In conclusion, the three-point line will be a busy place. Cornell will looking to chuck from deep, Stanford's wings will be facing a zone that is rightly worried about Los Lopez inside. Fred Washington back healthy is bad news for Cornell, the pure shooting Wittman would have found the going much easier a couple weeks ago. Too much Cardinal size, a half-court style of play that won't create a turnover edge, great FT shooting that will be wasted by a lack of attempts. Barring a whistle happy officiating crew or a sick edge from the arc, I say the Collison-lite led Ivy Leaguers just don't have the beef to stay close.

Stanford covers the 14.5 spread fairly easily behind a balanced attack. Look for the first 80 mark of the month (free nachos at Acapulco's for you veteran readers!).

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