It didn’t take long for the Ivy League to make a big splash nationally. After months and months of endless hype, Cornell was faced with the unenviable task of having to back it all up and did so admirably, staving off a late Alabama charge to hold on for a 71-67 road victory over the Crimson Tide.
The Big Red led a major opponent at the half, as it had on more than one occasion last year, and pushed its lead to 12 with as many minutes to go in the contest. Alabama’s subsequent 11-2 run kept the game close for the duration, but the big three of Ryan Wittman, Louis Dale and Jeff Foote answered every Crimson Tide bucket, scoring all but three of Cornell’s points down the stretch to earn the league’s first signature win of the season.
How did Cornell pull off the minor upset? As in most Ivy victories over major competition, the victory starts and ends at the three-point line – both offensively and defensively. The Big Red’s 10-for-18 performance far outpaced Alabama’s 4-for-11 showing. Wittman’s 5-for-8 mark from long range pushed his efficient field goal percentage to 86.4, while the team as a whole shot 60.4 percent. Defensively, Cornell was relatively stout, yielding an efficient field goal percentage right at 50.0 – more than 10 percentage points lower than its own.
If the Big Red shot so much better than the Crimson Tide, what allowed them to stay so close? Free throws were relatively even, as both teams hit about 68 percent of their attempts from the stripe with Alabama taking just three more than Cornell.
As often happens in BCS versus Ivy games, however, the Big Red got beaten relatively soundly on the boards. Cornell successfully corralled just 19-of-32 (59 percent) defensive rebound opportunities and 8-of-28 on the offensive end (29 percent). That’s an incredibly worrisome margin, as the Big Red can’t count on shooting better than 60 percent against every big time opponent to overcome its relative incompetence on the boards.
The raw defensive numbers are not great – Cornell’s defensive rating checks in at 106 on roughly 63 possessions while Alabama’s sits at 112. Pomeroy has adjusted those down to roughly 102 and 108, respectively, given the presumed quality of both offenses relative to the rest of Division I. Foote had the best individual defensive rating of the Big Red starters at 102, while Coury’s 99 was the game’s best. The Crimson Tide’s JaMychal Green had the best overall game with 17 points on mediocre shooting, but 10 rebounds and a 102 defensive rating – six points better than any other Alabama player.
It seems unfair to pick away in such a manner at a huge win for Cornell and the Ivy League, but with awareness of both the Big Red’s schedule and its postseason aspirations, judging the squad on that level is almost necessary. As a pure shooting team, Cornell acquitted itself quite nicely. But for all the hype about the team’s strengthened frontcourt presence, the final tally showed that much is still lacking there. Shooting comes and goes, while tough, gritty defense is more consistent night-to-night. For the Big Red to have continued success against its ambitious schedule, it will need to do a much better job keeping opposing big men away from the offensive glass.