Coury's hoops journey full of surprises

Former UK walk-on, starter part of solid team at Cornell

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 22, 2010 

This morning, we assemble to consider one of the more extraordinary college basketball journeys ever to pass through the commonwealth — that of Mark Coury.

Yes, that Mark Coury.

Only two years ago, Coury, a walk-on from West Bloomfield, Mich., not blessed with abundant athleticism, was a regular starter for the historically regal hoops program at Kentucky.

Yet that's not the most unlikely part of the story.

After the 6-foot-9, 240-pound big man decided to transfer following that 2007-08 season, he became the 86th men's basketball player to leave UK for another school since 1913-14 (source: Jon Scott's Kentucky Basketball Statistics Project Web site).

When he picked Cornell, Coury became the first men's hoops player ever to leave the basketball factory here in Lexington for the hallowed academic halls of the Ivy League.

Yet that's not the most unlikely part of the story.

This winter, in his first year of eligibility with the Big Red, the guy who started 29 games in his last go-round at Kentucky has started only one at Cornell.

Yet even that's not the most unlikely part of the story.

Bear with me, and I'll tell you what is.

In Ithaca, N.Y., Coury is playing a bit part in one of the more compelling narratives of the current college basketball season.

At 23-4, Cornell has the Ivy League lead; wins over Alabama (SEC) and St. John's (Big East); and one of the more talked-about "good losses" of the season, a nail-biting 71-66 defeat at No. 1 Kansas.

In the Monday rankings from Web site realtimerpi.com, Cornell stood 49th. That is ahead of big conference bubble teams such as Florida (52nd), Cincinnati (56th), Marquette (59th), Washington (60th), Mississippi (60th) and Mississippi State (65th).

"It's been going really well," Coury said last week, via the phone. "We have a really good team."

There are some similarities, Coury reports, between playing hoops for a school in the most prestigious academic conference in the country and at a university that may be the most intent in all the nation on winning at the highest level of college basketball.

At Kentucky, Coury and his teammates lived in the Joe B. Hall Wildcat Lodge, a dormitory filled primarily with basketball players.

The living situation at Cornell is "actually kind of similar to Kentucky," Coury said. "Here, we're renting a house for 14 people, every upperclassman on the basketball team, we all live together."

When the Wildcats play in Rupp Arena, the joint tends to be filled.

At Cornell, a school whose athletic identity has long come from lacrosse and ice hockey, the bid by Coach Steve Donahue's basketball team to win its third-straight Ivy League title has made hoops a tough ticket.

Of course, Rupp seats 23,000-plus. Cornell's Newman Arena — which according to the school's Web site is named for "one of the nation's foremost experts in industrial fuel-oil marketing" — has a capacity of 4,473.

So far this season, Coury is averaging 2.6 points and 2.8 rebounds while playing 11.4 minutes a game. In the near-miss at Kansas, he had a team-high seven rebounds.

His main value to the Big Red may be as a practice foil to center Jeff Foote (12.4 points, 8.4 rebounds), an able 7-footer.

Coury is studying finance at Cornell. He's planning to spend his summer doing an internship on Wall Street before returning next season for his final year of basketball eligibility.

He stays in touch with UK senior guard Mark Krebs, his former roommate. "I'm keeping tabs on Kentucky," Coury said. "I try to watch them when I can. They're at the top of the heap now. I'm happy for the guys and for the fans."

With star forward Ryan Wittman (17.6 points) and capable guards to go along with big man Foote, Cornell is seen as a viable threat to give the Ivy League its first NCAA Tournament win since Princeton beat UNLV in the 1998 first round.

Coury has let himself daydream about his bipolar basketball worlds, Cornell and Kentucky, colliding in the second round of this year's March Madness.

"That would be a tough matchup for us," Coury said. "But, in a way, I'd love it. It would be like old times, me going up against (Patrick) Patterson in the paint again, like we used to do in practice."

Which brings us to what is the most unlikely part of Mark Coury's basketball journey:

A guy who played two years at Kentucky (and went a combined 40-25) is on the best team he's been on as a collegian at Cornell.

What are the odds of that?

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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