College Basketball Nation: Ryan Wittman

Remember when plucky runs to the Sweet 16 were enough to make you a darling? You'll forgive us if we're no longer so easily impressed. In 2011, Virginia Commonwealth and Butler shattered the very notion of Sweet 16 darlings, proving that anyone -- small school or large, from the shakiest bubble team to one that lost to Youngstown State on Feb. 3 -- could upend the traditional hoops hierarchy and beat the most talented and well-heeled programs in the country in the games that mattered most.

Still, the Big Red's run in 2010 was pretty cool. Unfortunately, Cornell met Kentucky in the Sweet 16, and as DeMarcus Cousins, one of the five Wildcats selected in the first round of the draft later that summer, famously put it: "We're here to play basketball. It's not a spelling bee." UK throttled Cornell, ending the Ivy League darling's run and (if only briefly) restoring college hoops' postseason pecking order.

So what are the Big Red up to these days? The New York Times caught up with them at the 92nd Street Y, where five former Cornell stars -- Jeff Foote, Ryan Wittman, Louis Dale, Jon Jaques and Aaron Osgoodwere -- were beginning what sounds like a rather awkward afternoon in the yoga studio:
There, the five former Cornell standouts — Foote, Ryan Wittman, Louis Dale, Jon Jaques and Aaron Osgood — settled on undersize mats in the front row of the dimly lighted class, staggering their positions to avoid hitting one another with their arms during the stretches. For the next 1 hour 25 minutes, the five labored through an intermediate yoga class of 13 women and 2 other men as the instructor rattled off instructions with the faint sound of music in the background.

“It’s a little difficult when you’re 7 feet tall versus 5-10 like Louis,” said Foote, who needed special attention from the instructor throughout the session. “We used to do it as a team a little at Cornell, but never quite like that.”

Wittman, the 2010 Ivy League player of the year, said: “We probably should be in a beginner’s class, but we decided to give it a try.” He added: “I’ve noticed a big difference since I began doing it this summer. It helps with flexibility, quickness and durability.”

Eventually, I'm going to get myself to a beginner's yoga class. Seriously. I'll swallow my pride if everyone I know that does yoga -- dudes included, but mostly females -- stops telling me how much better it makes you feel. Deal? Deal.

Anyway, the Cornell gents aren't just mucking around in Downward-Facing Dog for the fun of it. It's part of a summer workout regimen that includes "skill drills, two-on-two games and weight lifting as often as six days a week."

Why all the work? Because four of the five have either received or are entertaining various offers from overseas clubs. Wittman played summer league games with NBA teams and signed with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants last year -- home of the most terrifying mascot in all of sports -- before eventually making the trek to Italy. This year, Wittman's NBA dreams are even more unlikely, thanks to a lockout that has basically frozen any unsigned free agents and rookies out of roster contention until further notice.

In any case, the group sounds like a tight-knit one. Almost like the Entourage bros. I'm not sure where yoga at the 92nd Street Y lands on the spectrum of eternal bro-ness, but hey, whatever works, right?
And hey, why should they? It was one of the most successful seasons in Ivy League history, let alone Cornell basketball history. That's the sort of season you want to remember in handy video montage format, which is exactly what the Cornell fans at The Cornell Basketball Blog have done.

Notable cameos -- besides Ryan Wittman, Jeff Foote, and the rest of the team, obviously -- include ESPN personalities like Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale. Naturally, there's also a little clip of Barack Obama giving the Big Red the presidential seal of approval in picking No. 12-seeded Cornell over No. 5 Temple, an upset that just about everyone except yours truly picked. Still a little sore about that.

In any case, if you hopped on the Cornell bandwagon a little late and wanted to see some of the team's early season highlights, this montage is for you. It's probably best to enjoy now, because repeating this season will be a tall task in 2010-11. Last year's was a senior-laden team -- Wittman, Foote, and guard Louis Dale are all graduating this spring, along with six other members of the team -- and with coach Steve Donahue leaving the school to take on a rebuilding project at Boston College in the wake of Al Skinner's departure, Cornell basketball might soon fade into its own transitional period. Remember 2010 well, Cornell fans. It was an awfully good one, and it might be a while before it happens again.

Final: Kentucky 62, Cornell 45

March, 26, 2010
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Well, that wasn't what was expected.

If Kentucky was going to win this game, which it did 62-45, I was convinced it would be in a rout, not a game played at an Ivy League speed and score from one of Cornell's rivals like Princeton.

Kentucky's defense in the first half was as impressive as I've seen this season -- maybe even more so than their dismantling of Wake Forest in the second round.

The Wildcats completely took Cornell out of what it wanted to run in the first half after an initial 10-2 lead by the Big Red. The 30-6 run to close out the half was something to observe.

But the Big Red never quit. Kentucky's offense went stagnant and Cornell found away to claw back into the game to get within six on a Louis Dale 3-pointer. But as much as Cornell was on the verge of making it a historic upset, Kentucky still kept the Big Red at arm's length. There was still too much DeMarcus Cousins and Cornell could not keep him out of the lane.

Kentucky survived the Cornell surge to move onto the Elite Eight. But that's hardly unexpected for a Wildcat team formed under John Calipari. The goal has always been a trip back to the Final Four for the first time since 1998.

Kentucky will now face West Virginia Saturday at 7 p.m. ET in the Elite Eight. It will end up being the only No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in the bracket in an upset-filled tournament. Neither teams played a complete game but both found a way to win Thursday. They were the most consistent, the most talented and the two teams that seemed destined to meet here in Syracuse.

Let's see if the game can live up to the advance billing.

Halftime: Kentucky 32, Cornell 16

March, 25, 2010
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- What were your thoughts when Cornell opened up a 10-2 lead? Well, mine were that this is a good start but it almost seemed surreal. Jeff Foote was playing well by controlling the early post play. Ryan Wittman hit a 3-pointer. All looked good.

Until DeMarcus Cousins started to re-assert control of the post and the pressure got amped up to another level as the Wildcats started to force turnovers.
  • And then it was off to the races. How can you not like Kentucky's fast break? Cornell simply got run over by a truck.
  • Kentucky was taking high-percentage shots, making 14-of-28, a lot of them layups. When you're streaking out on the break it doesn't matter that the Wildcats only made two 3s.
  • Cornell can't win by making only a pair of 3s.
  • You have to credit Kentucky's ability to share the basketball. The Wildcats did a tremendous job of complementing each other with 11 assists on 14 field goals.
  • The crowd was rocking early when Cornell had the lead. But the Kentucky faithful were loudest when the Wildcats went on that menacing 30-6 run to close out the half.
  • In an NCAA tournament full of upsets we might actually get a chalk Elite Eight in Syracuse with Kentucky vs. West Virginia in a 1 vs. 2 matchup.
  • If you watch the Wildcats, do you start to think at times of UNLV from the early '90s? Sometimes it's hard not to think that the Wildcats look the part.

Photoblog: Kentucky dominating Cornell

March, 25, 2010
Kentucky WildcatsRichard Mackson/US PresswireKentucky's Darius Miller (left) and John Wall block Cornell's Ryan Wittman during the first half of their Sweet 16 matchup.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- A few quick hitters to prepare for Thursday’s games:

Darryl Bryant
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesWest Virginia's depth takes a hit without guard Darryl Bryant.

  • West Virginia will spread the floor without Darryl Bryant in the lineup. Don’t be surprised to see plenty of Devin Ebanks and Da'Sean Butler bringing up the ball to jump-start the offense. There were times when Bryant was much more of a two guard.
  • The Mountaineers may see a lot more zone against Washington. Expect the Huskies to back off of Joe Mazzulla. He can’t shoot.
  • The Mountaineers are trying to figure out how to play and this will hurt their depth. But the Mountaineers do have the depth to cause plenty of problems upfront for Washington.
  • Washington coach Lorenzo Romar says the Huskies have to rebound against the Mountaineers. They know it’s going to be a tussle inside if they’re going to win this game.
  • It’s interesting to see the Huskies treated as such underdogs. They don’t view themselves as such. They’re not a low-major, a mid-major. They’re regular Pac-10 tournament contenders.
  • Kentucky coach John Calipari said late Wednesday night that the media helped fire up his squad. He said the Wildcats got on the bus after being asked questions about the "smart vs. athletes" matchup against Cornell and got fired up. Calipari said he doesn’t have to worry about any motivational factors prior to the game.
  • Here’s a crazy thought: If Cornell pulls off the improbable and beats Kentucky, can you imagine where Louis Dale would be in five to 10 years versus John Wall and/or Eric Bledsoe? The beauty of this tournament is that a player like Dale at the point can be an equalizer against NBA-level talent in a one-game situation.
  • The same could be said of Cornell’s Jeff Foote versus Kentucky’s DeMarcus Cousins.
  • Cornell coach Steve Donahue said the Big Red have to get off to a good start. That’s a given. The last time the Big Red didn’t was at Penn in a stunning loss to the Quakers in the Ivy League. Cornell did get off to a tremendous start against Temple and Wisconsin in the first two rounds of the tournament. The Big Red can’t play catchup well, but you don’t want to be down by double figures against this controlled team.
  • I’d be stunned if Cornell didn’t release four guards back after a miss to prevent any kind of fast-break opportunities for Kentucky.
  • Carrier Dome fans booed Kentucky during its practice session Wednesday. Big Blue Nation is expected to be here en masse for the game Thursday night. But the boos were another perfect motivator for Calipari to give him the us vs. them mentality for the game.
  • Syracuse is not exactly on the way for a number of families from the West Coast to attend the game. The Huskies were able to charter quite nicely with a four-and-a-half hour flight from Seattle. But Quincy Pondexter said his parents had to fly from his hometown of Fresno, Calif., to Florida to Syracuse to get here in time to the game. He said that was the cheapest way to go on short notice.
  • Washington expects only a smattering of fans at the Carrier Dome. The Huskies have a massive contingent of alumni in the Northwest; not so much on the East Coast.
  • The Huskies were the dominant team in San Jose last weekend, odd as a No. 11 seed. But now the fan base will be shifted toward the East Coast teams in this regional.
  • If the Huskies go man, Pondexter may be matched up more often against Kevin Jones than Butler. Pondexter and Butler know each other quite well. They were teammates on the bronze medal-winning World University Games team last summer in Serbia.
  • I’m interested to see how the Mountaineers try to keep Isaiah Thomas in front of them. Bryant was quicker than Mazzulla, and Thomas has the ability to go past them. Ebanks’ length has been a problem for smaller guards, and West Virginia coach Bob Huggins might put the longer Ebanks on the quicker Thomas.
  • What will be the reaction of the crowd if Cornell has an early lead? It could get really loud in the Carrier Dome if West Virginia and/or Washington fans stick around for the nearly 10 p.m. tip.
  • Cornell’s Ryan Wittman’s ability to stick the 3-pointer will be sorely tested by how much either Wall or Bledsoe are in his grill.
  • What’s lost among the four teams is how much these four coaches have won recently. Washington’s Romar has been a constant for the most part four of the last six years at or near the top of the Pac-10. Calipari is obviously a winner everywhere he goes. The same is true for Huggins at Cincinnati, Kansas State and West Virginia, and the turnaround by Donahue at Cornell is simply remarkable. No one had the Big Red as an Ivy League factor for decades as Penn and Princeton dominated.
  • If Cornell were to beat Kentucky, regardless of how experienced and talented the Big Red are this season, it would go down as one of the biggest upsets ever. Sorry, this is still an Ivy League team, even with two potential pros in Wittman and Foote, with no scholarships beating a Kentucky team loaded with at least three lottery to four lock first-round picks and the new favorite to win the NCAA title.
  • Washington taking out West Virginia would not be much of an upset, if any. The Huskies are playing up to their potential and can match the Mountaineers talent for talent. Forget the seeds here.

Red-hot Big Red keeps on rolling

March, 21, 2010
Kim Klement/US PresswireLouis Dale's 26 points keyed a Big Red attack Sunday that tore up what had been a stingy Wisconsin defense.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- As he headed back to his jubilant locker room, Cornell point guard Louis Dale stopped to sign a hat from a fan. It was a University of Alabama cap, sure, but at least it had the right red-and-white colors, and Alabama is Dale's home state.

Then another fan dropped a hat for Dale to sign. This one was blue.

"A Kentucky hat?" Dale said, incredulously eyeing the UK logo before throwing the hat back into the stands. "You've got to be kidding me. Get that out of here."

We are not kidding about this: Kentucky had better watch out for Cornell in the Sweet 16 on Thursday. After the way the 12th-seeded Big Red played this weekend in Jacksonville -- especially in Sunday's 87-69 dismantling of Wisconsin -- they must be considered as much of a threat as anyone left in the NCAA Tournament.

Temple and Wisconsin owned two of the best defenses in the country this season, according to the stats. Yet here is what Cornell did to those defenses: shot a combined 58.8 percent from the floor and 44.7 percent on three-pointers while averaging 82.5 points.

Wisconsin had allowed 70 points only three times all year, two of those coming in overtime games. Yet Bo Ryan's defense got sliced like a machete through warm gouda. Cornell shot 61.1 percent, the highest percentage by any team against the Badgers in the Ryan era.

"In our half-court defense, we thought we did some pretty good things," Ryan said. "But that's how good they are. ... I'm not sure if three or four days' [preparation] would have stopped what they do, because they just do it well."

When you think of Ivy League teams, you probably envision those old Princeton teams that worked the ball around, running backdoor screen after backdoor screen. But Cornell is far more diverse than that.

Yes, it can make a back cut with the best of them. But against Wisconsin, the Big Red scored on give-and-gos, alley oops, tear-drop floaters and in transition. Ryan Wittman (24 points) can create his own shot at 6-foot-7, and Dale (26 points) can get in the lane against anybody, as he proved repeatedly against the Badgers' all-Big Ten defensive team performer Trevon Hughes. Then there's seven-footer Jeff Foote, who eats up space on screens and is a deft passer.

"We have a lot of players who can score in a variety of ways," Foote said. "Ryan and Louis did their thing today, and when they do that, we're tough to stop."

Foote predicted at the start of the season that his team would make the Sweet 16, and Cornell became the first Ivy League school since Penn made the Final Four in 1979 to advance to the second weekend. No one on the team seems all that surprised by the development.

"It really doesn't matter who we're playing," forward Jon Jacques said. "We're confident in ourselves. Our confidence is definitely growing each game."

So is their goofiness. The players have been joking around all weekend, displaying the comfort of a group making its third straight trip to March Madness. The team watched "Friday Night Lights" on Saturday night and told Dale he had to work a quote from the movie into his postgame press conference. Dale pulled it off, while his teammates erupted with laughter while watching him on a TV in the locker room.

Does that kind of stuff happen a lot?

"Well, we don't usually have many press conferences," Dale said.

Coach Steve Donahue said his team likes to have fun but knows when to get serious. It showed in their preparations this weekend, as they got off to strong starts in both games and trailed for a total of 2:43, all at the beginning in the Temple game. Donahue called Cornell's offensive execution against Wisconsin the best he'd ever seen as a coach.

Next comes perhaps the biggest David vs. Goliath matchup in the history of the Sweet 16: Cornell against top-seeded Kentucky. A program whose first two NCAA Tournament wins came this weekend vs. one with seven NCAA titles. A school that doesn't give athletic scholarships vs. one that has four likely lottery picks. Unrecruited seniors vs. blue-chip freshmen. Big Red vs. Big Blue.

And it will take place in Syracuse, N.Y., about 55 miles from Cornell's campus.

"It's an amazing story, " said Mark Coury, who started 29 games at Kentucky before transferring to Cornell, where he comes off the bench. "We won our last two games by a lot of points, but obviously Kentucky is a whole different level. But if we run our offense efficiently and play good defense, I think we'll have a chance."

Kentucky had better be prepared. Or else the Wildcats will become the latest team to have their hats handed to them by Cornell.

Final: Cornell 87, Wisconsin 69

March, 21, 2010
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Brain Train keeps chugging along.

Cornell didn't just win two games here in Jacksonville this weekend; it dominated them both. After a 13-point win over Temple on Friday, the 12th-seeded Ivy Leaguers destroyed No. 4 seed Wisconsin 87-69 Sunday to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.

Cornell scored the first eight points, led by 12 at halftime and blew the doors open early in the second half. The Big Red scored more points against Wisconsin in regulation than any of the Badgers' opponents this year. They shot a sizzling 61 percent and probably could have scored 100 had they not called off the dogs late in the game.

Ryan Wittman and Louis Dale each had 24 points, while Jeff Foote and Chris Wroblewski added 12 each.

The Badgers looked dazed and confused throughout the second half, as if they couldn't believe anyone, let alone an Ivy League school, could so thoroughly dissect their defense like that. Bo Ryan even earned a technical foul during the half.

Like most people, I expected the Big Red to be good. But the level of their performance this weekend was simply astounding, and it's not crazy to suggest that they can beat No. 1 seed Kentucky in the next round.

If they play the way they did in Jacksonville this weekend, the Brain Train is going to be tough for anyone to stop.

Day 2: NCAA tournament roundup

March, 20, 2010
Cornell Big RedKim Klement/US PresswireCornell gave the upset-hungry among us a reason to celebrate on Day 2 of the NCAA tournament.

So the encore had as much drama as a Will Ferrell flick.

After an opening day filled with upsets, buzzer-beaters and jaw-dropping results, Friday's second day of the 2010 NCAA tournament was largely tame.

Outside of an upset many college basketball fans predicted -- Ivy League champion Cornell thumped Atlantic-10 champion Temple 78-65 in an East Regional first-round game in Jacksonville, Fla. -- the day was largely uneventful.

There were a couple of other mild upsets in seed only: 10-seed Missouri beat 7th-seeded Clemson 86-78 in the East Regional in Buffalo, N.Y., and 10-seed Georgia Tech defeated 7th-seeded Oklahoma State 64-59 in the Midwest Regional in Milwaukee, Wis.

But even those games lacked the last-second thrills of the tournament’s opening act, in which five double-digits seeds won and eight of the 16 games were decided by three points or less (or in OT). Thursday? Just one game was decided by three points or less.

Each of the No. 1 seeds that played on Friday rolled. Duke beat No. 16-seeded Arkansas-Pine Bluff 73-44 in the South Regional, and Syracuse manhandled Vermont 79-56 in the West.

Friday wasn’t completely void of reasons to cheer. Cornell finished 27-4 during the regular season, but some still questioned its legitimacy as a serious threat in March. The Big Red’s best performance this season actually came in a loss: 71-66 at Kansas on Jan. 6.

But against Temple’s vaunted defense, Cornell shot 56.3 percent and made nine 3-pointers. Senior guard Louis Dale scored 21 points and senior forward Ryan Wittman scored 20 for the Big Red, which won its first NCAA tournament game ever and ended the Ivy League’s 12-game drought in the NCAAs.

“I think it’s great for our league; just the national attention,” Dale told reporters Friday. “Our league is a good league. It was hard for us to win. Princeton is a good team, Harvard is good, and I think it’s just great for our league.”

Speaking of leagues in all-out show-us-respect mode, the Pac-10 picked up another victory over the Big East on Friday, as Cal stomped Louisville from start to finish in a 77-62 victory in Jacksonville. On Thursday, Washington was a comeback winner over Marquette. Combine those two with the first-round victories of Gonzaga and Saint Mary's and the two most prominent conferences on the West Coast (the Pac-10 and WCC) are 4-0 in this tournament. So is this still the worst season of Left Coast basketball in years, as so many have proclaimed? Maybe not.

Many college basketball fans also wondered how good 4th-seeded Purdue would be after the Boilermakers lost star forward Robbie Hummel to a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 24. Most figured the Boilermakers would go one-and-done in the NCAA after they lost to Minnesota by 27 points in the semifinals of last week’s Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis. But junior center JaJuan Johnson scored 23 points and grabbed 15 rebounds and three other Boilers scored in double figures in a 72-64 victory, ending Siena’s hopes for a third first-round upset in as many years.

[+] EnlargeJordan Crawford
AP Photo/Morry GashXavier's Jordan Crawford is one of two former Indiana Hoosiers making a splash in this year's tournament.
If watching the Boilermakers win wasn’t bad enough for Indiana University fans, imagine having to watch former Hoosiers Armon Bassett and Jordan Crawford the last two days. Bassett and Crawford were part of the mass exodus of players after former Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson was fired in 2008.

On Thursday night, Bassett scored 32 points in No. 14-seeded Ohio’s 97-83 upset of Georgetown in the Midwest Regional. A day later, Crawford scored 28 points with six rebounds and five assists in No. 6-seeded Xavier’s 65-54 victory over Minnesota in a West Regional game in Milwaukee. That's a mere 60 points combined.

The Hoosiers? They've gone 16-46 the last two seasons as new coach Tom Crean continues to clean up the mess Sampson left behind.

Perhaps Crean could use a player like Maryland's Jordan Williams. In his very first NCAA tournament game, all the freshman did was score a career-high 21 points and haul in a career-high 17 rebounds as the 4th-seeded Terrapins pulled away from Houston in an 89-77 victory.

For a while, at least, it seemed like we would have the same edge-of-your-seat drama -- and the same embarrassing results for the Big East -- from the day before. No. 2-seeded West Virginia missed its first 11 shots against Morgan State in an East Regional game in Buffalo. But the Mountaineers finally found their stroke and pulled away in a 77-50 rout.

No. 3-seeded Pittsburgh scored 11 points in the first 10 minutes against Oakland in a West Regional game in Milwaukee, before running away with an 89-66 victory.

Wisconsin, the No. 4 seed in the East Regional, didn’t put away Wofford until junior forward Jon Leuer buried a baseline jumper with 18 seconds left in a 53-49 win in Jacksonville. Wofford College was founded in Spartanburg, S.C., in 1854, but the Terriers were making their first NCAA tournament appearance. They certainly didn’t seem to be overwhelmed, as they had a one-point lead with 4:43 to play.

“We know Wofford is very good,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “We know their heart is big. We know how hard they play.”

The Badgers play Cornell, another team with a big heart, in Sunday’s second round.

The good news? The underdogs which won our hearts on Thursday will be back in action in Saturday’s second-round games. No. 14-seeded Ohio plays No. 6 Tennessee in the Midwest Regional. No. 11-seeded Old Dominion plays No. 3 Baylor and 10th-seeded Saint Mary’s plays No. 2 Villanova in the South Regional. No. 13-seeded Murray State faces No. 5 Butler in the West Regional, and No. 11-seeded Washington will try to knock off No. 3 New Mexico in the East.

Here’s hoping Saturday is more like Thursday than Friday.

Cornell smashes perceptions

March, 19, 2010

Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesCornell 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.

Final: Cornell 78, Temple 65

March, 19, 2010
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Cornell is for real.

The 12th-seeded Big Red didn't just beat fifth-seeded Temple. They controlled the game from start to finish, leading by as many as 19 points in the second half. There was never any question of which team was better in all facets.

Cornell shot 56 percent for the game and was over the 60 percent mark until missing some meaningless shots late. After making just two 3-pointers in the first half, the Big Red buried seven treys in the second half.

Louis Dale (21), Ryan Wittman (20 points) and Jeff Foote (16) all had big scoring days and were a combined 19-of-32 from the floor.

Temple didn't play that poorly, shooting 51.9 percent itself. But Cornell simply outplayed the Atlantic-10 regular-season and tournament champions. It's the first win for the Ivy League since Princeton in 1998.

But it's clear that the Big Red aren't just some Ivy League curiosity. They're for real, and they'll be tough to handle in the second round.

Cornell a cool, confident bunch

March, 18, 2010
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.

[+] EnlargeCoury
Jeff Moffett/Icon SMIMark 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."
We've seen it happen before. Players turn themselves into household names and etch their names in tourney lore with strong performances in the NCAA tournament -- Davidson's Stephen Curry and Valparaiso's Bryce Drew come to mind.

Here are a few under-the-radar players to watch during the NCAA tournament:

1. Ryan Wittman, Cornell

The senior from Eden Prairie, Minn., is a big reason the Big Red won the Ivy League championship. He averaged 17.5 points per game and shot 42 percent on 3-pointers. Wittman, the son of former Indiana star Randy Wittman, scored 24 points in Cornell's 71-66 loss at Kansas on Jan. 6.

2. Randy Culpepper, UTEP

The junior guard from Memphis helped the Miners run away with the Conference USA championship. He averaged 18 points per game and is capable of scoring in bunches. He had 45 points against East Carolina and 39 against Central Florida.

3. Kevin Anderson, Richmond

Anderson and David Gonzalvez give the Spiders one of the country's most underrated backcourts. Anderson, a junior from Atlanta, averaged 17.8 points and seemed to play his best in Richmond's biggest games. He scored 31 points at Wake Forest, 29 against Temple and 27 against Xavier in the Atlantic 10 tournament.

4. Jimmer Fredette, BYU

By now, most college basketball fans have heard about Fredette, the Cougars' high-scoring guard. The junior from Glen Falls, N.Y., averaged 21.7 points and shot 44.8 percent on 3-pointers. He had seven games with 30 points or more, including a 49-point outburst in a 99-69 rout at Arizona on Dec. 28.

5. Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State

The Aztecs' bruising freshman nearly averaged a double-double with 12.8 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. He posted back-to-back double-doubles in San Diego State's upsets of New Mexico and UNLV in the Mountain West Conference tournament. Leonard had 16 points and 21 rebounds in a 55-45 victory over the Runnin' Rebels in the MWC tourney championship game.

6. Aubrey Coleman, Houston

Coleman, a senior from Houston, led the country in scoring with 25.6 points per game. The junior-college transfer from Southwest Mississippi Community College had nine 30-point games this season and also is an underrated rebounder and passer.

Cornell going dancing

March, 5, 2010
Cornell became the first team to clinch a berth into the NCAA tournament field of 65 after beating Brown 95-76 today to win the Ivy League title.

Jon Jaques led the big Red wih 20 points, Louis Dale had 18, and Ryan Wittman added 16 to take the outright title, which comes along with the automatic berth.

Cornell had little trouble in this one, going 20 of 30 from three-point range.

Cornell finds a way to pass the time

February, 24, 2010
In an age when Rick Majerus finds flying commercial to be the ultimate in inconvenience, college basketball teams don't spend too much time rolling around on buses anymore. They certainly don't take too many seven-hour bus trips. Most journeys that long would take place aboard chartered jets, with caviar, champagne, and Beatz by Dre. (OK, so maybe not the first two.)

Not in the Ivy League, and not at Cornell. The Big Red had a seven-hour bus trip back from their wins at Dartmouth and Harvard this weekend. How did the victors pass the time? Duh, you guys! With truth or dare! Ugh, Mom, GET OUT OF MY ROOM I HAVE FRIENDS OVER:

Like a bunch of teenage girls at a slumber party, we began to play Truth or Dare on Jeff Foote’s iPhone. [...] Truths were revealing, as always, but the Dares proved to be the most entertaining.

Geoff Reeves was picked on early and often: he was dared to simultaneously wear an article of clothing from each participating player until his next turn, then one turn later was required to give himself a toothpaste mustache. I was dared to let a blindfolded Ryan Wittman draw a highlighter mustache on my face. He didn’t do a terrible job either. (The color was green, if you were curious.) The game got old pretty fast, however, and the bus ride sailed along smoothly until we literally hit a bump in the road.

Truth or dare managed to get boring, so the players decided to build a fort with bed sheets -- no boys allowed, and that means you too, Dad, gosh -- and watched "Scream" and "Scream 2" because those movies are, like, totes the scariest. LOL. Then they stayed up way past their bedtime and talked about boys at school. OMG you guys. Best. Slumber party. Ever.

OK, not really; Cornell's bus driver encountered a family of deer, one of which found its run-in with a large charter bus to be fatal. Then Cornell went home, having built its record to 23-4 and retained its commanding lead in the race for the Ivy League regular season crown. Truth or dare? Truth: The Big Red are looking pretty good.