Cornell has struggled as Ivy League looms
Playing top-seeded Kentucky with visions of the Final Four seems like a lifetime ago for the Cornell Big Red.
The stark reality of the loss of eight seniors quickly set in this season, and new coach Bill Courtney's team hasn't been so formidable.
Off to a 4-10 start, this isn't the squad he saw firsthand last winter during a tournament in Philadelphia - not with six sophomores, five freshmen and only four seniors on the roster.
''Nothing's the same, and the coach is different,'' said Courtney, an assistant at Virginia Tech last year. ''I probably underestimated it (the loss of the seniors) a little bit. ''You have veteran guys here, but yet you've got to realize they're not really veterans because they haven't played, and they certainly haven't played in the roles that they are in now. That's been the biggest challenge - trying to put it all together, get everybody to kind of learn new roles.''
An ankle injury to star junior guard Chris Wroblewski and injuries to a couple of other players has made Courtney's job more difficult. The Big Red won the season-opener by four points at Albany, then lost nine of 10 - seven by six points or fewer - as they struggled to find any sort of rhythm.
''At the beginning of the year, he was trying to get a feel for us and how we approach practice and who we are as players and people,'' Wroblewski said. ''We were used to coach (Steve) Donahue. That's who brought us in here, that's who we thought we'd be playing for.''
Last season under Donahue, the Big Red were awfully good. They won an Ivy League-record 29 games, 18 away from home (13-3 road, 5-1 neutral) - the most in the country - and their 12 non-league triumphs away from home were the most of any Division I school.
That was enough to land Donahue a new job at Boston College after a decade building the Big Red into something special in the annals of the Ivy League.
Led by a core of seniors that included Ivy League player of the year Ryan Wittman and two-time defensive player of the year Jeff Foote, Cornell won its third straight league title and surpassed 20 wins for the third consecutive season, the first time that had been done in the 111-year history of the men's program.
As the 12th seed in the East Region of the NCAA tournament, the Big Red upset Temple and Wisconsin - the school's first triumphs in the tournament - before Kentucky ended their storybook run. That magic in March also was uplifting for the Cornell campus in the aftermath of six student suicides.
Talk about a tough act to follow.
''The season has definitely not been going according to plan,'' said Wroblewski, the new focal point of the offense who's almost fully recovered from the ankle injury he incurred during a preseason scrimmage. ''We lost a lot of close games, but I think it's going to help us come the Ivy League season. Down the road, I think the ball's going to start to bounce our way.''
Cornell which opens Ivy League play at Columbia (9-5) on Saturday night, beat Delaware 75-61 in its first home game of the season, then two nights later lost to St. Bonaventure, 56-54. That snapped a 12-game home win streak at Newman Arena.
Also mixed in were a three-point loss at Lehigh, a five-point loss at No. 15 Minnesota, a one-point loss at Binghamton and a two-point loss to New Hampshire.
''We're this close between losing and winning games,'' Errick Peck, who's averaged 15 points in the last eight games, said as he held the index finger and thumb on his right hand less than an inch apart.
At least the four former stars - including Louis Dale and Jon Jaques - have been able to offer encouragement from afar through text messages while playing this season for pro teams in Italy, Germany and Israel. Even Donahue has sent a couple of his own.
In his stellar career, the 6-7 Wittman set an Ivy League record with 377 3-pointers. Courtney has asked the 6-foot, 170-pound Wroblewski to assume that role.
''It's been an adjustment, definitely,'' Wroblewski said. ''I got used to just sitting in the corner and having Louis (Dale) pass me the ball. There would be no one within five feet of me. I shoot a far better percentage that way than taking off-balance shots. I was kind of not in the rhythm with the injury at the start of the season. But now, I'm starting to get more comfortable and more confident. That's the big thing.''
Wroblewski, a career 44.7 percent 3-point shooter, is 12 of 17 from beyond the arc in the past three games and leads the team in scoring at 15.6 points per game.
More importantly, the Big Red are winning again with high-energy senior Adam Wire leading the team in rebounding as a reserve and classmates Aaron Osgood (eight points and 4.5 rebounds per game) and Max Groebe (6.5 ppg) excelling, often as starters.
In an 86-80 victory two weeks ago over Wofford, which returned seven of its eight top scorers from the defending Southern Conference championship team, Cornell made 18 consecutive field goal attempts and was 14 of 17 from 3-point range as juniors Wroblewski, Peck and Drew Ferry combined to hit 13 of 14 from beyond the arc.
''That's the way the team is built,'' Courtney said. ''Hopefully, it will continue. Now I think we're starting to figure out our offense a little bit, figure out where we're going to get our shots, feel confident in knowing that we're going to knock that down.''