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Thursday, March 18, 2010
Cornell a cool, confident bunch

By Brian Bennett

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Mark Coury began his career as a walk-on at Kentucky, earning a starting job his sophomore year before transferring to Cornell.

The differences between the college basketball elite and the Ivy League require little explanation, from the facilities to the food to the travel. For example, Coury said the only time Kentucky ever bused to a game was when it played at Louisville; Cornell took a motor coach to every road stop this season except when it flew to Kansas -- and from there the team bused to South Dakota State.

Coury
Mark Coury and the Big Red are looking forward to their matchup with Temple.
It's the similarities between the two worlds, not the differences, that are interesting. While the Big Red will never match the Big Blue in most things, Cornell is a wise-guy NCAA tournament pick after going 27-4 this season.

"Coming to Cornell, I learned what it's like to be an upstart," Coury said. "It's not going to be at the Kentucky level, but it's getting to where we're more respected."

This is the Big Red's third straight year in the tournament, and they're a senior-dominated team that's no longer awestruck by the environment or the pressure of the moment.

"Our goal that first year was just winning the [Ivy] championship and getting to the NCAA tournament, and anything after that would be gravy," leading scorer Ryan Wittman said. "We've got different goals this year. Our expectations are about winning some games here as well."

Many believe they can do just that. Cornell owns wins this season over Alabama, UMass and St. John's, and nearly knocked off Kansas in Lawrence before falling 71-66. It led the nation in 3-point shooting this season at 43.4 percent, but this is more than just a collection of shooters. What sets them apart from other Ivy Leaguers of the past is a legitimate inside game with 7-foot, 265-pound center Jeff Foote, who's a deft passer as well as a strong rebounder and shot blocker.

Loads of people, including bracketologist-in-chief Barack Obama, are picking the No. 12 seed to upset No. 5 Temple on Friday. ESPN's Jay Bilas even penciled Cornell into the Elite Eight.

"That's pretty cool, but it doesn't make our jobs any easier," Wittman said. "We played a tough nonconference schedule that prepared us for these types of games. In the past, we didn't really know how well we'd play against these types of teams, but I think this year is different."

The players certainly seemed loose during their meeting with the media on Thursday. Foote lost a shooting bet in practice with guard Louis Dale, so he had to answer the first question of the news conference with a complete non-sequitur as his teammates on the dais giggled.

Here's an unexpected statement that's no joke: an Ivy League team is a serious threat in this year's tournament.

"I don't know if we're the underdog, but we're 100 percent focused on getting that first NCAA win," Coury said. "Having played at Kentucky, I'm not intimidated by anything, and I know the rest of these guys feel basically the same way."