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Cornell’s smart bombs test Cats’ thick ‘D’

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 24, 2010 

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Cornell publicist Jeremy Hartigan didn't know Cornell's precise graduation rate.

"But I'm comfortable in saying almost every year, it's 100 percent," he said.

The lead-up to Kentucky's NCAA Tournament game against Cornell on Thursday night has seemed like one long salute to how smart the Big Red players are. But just how brainy are those brainiacs with the pressure on?

The Cats are betting their defense makes all that talk about Cornell's smarts and experience melt away.

"We just have to play our defense, play like we normally do," reserve big man Josh Harrellson said Wednesday. "Get up in them. Get them out of their sets. And try to make them play with us."

It's a compelling argument. Kentucky (34-2) got to be the top seed in the East Region with stout defense. UK has held opponents to 37.9-percent shooting, which ranks fourth nationally.

Cornell (29-4), the 12th seed in the East Region, counters as one of best shooting teams in the country. The Big Red rank 12th nationally in overall shooting (48.6 percent) and are especially dead-eye from three-point range, ranking first in accuracy (43.5 percent) and third in treys per game (9.7, on average).

Jon Jaques (pronounced Jakes), one of Cornell's six players shooting 39.3 percent or better from beyond the arc, noted the Big Red's shooting ability is undisputed.

"We played two outstanding man-to-man defensive teams in the last two games and did well against them," said Jaques, one of the team's eight seniors.

That would be Temple and Wisconsin.

Wisconsin had held opponents to an average of 56 points before Cornell paddled Bucky Badger 87-69 in the second round Sunday. That marked the most points Wisconsin had yielded in four years.

In beating Wisconsin and Temple (78-65), Cornell made 17 of 38 three-point shots. Overall, Cornell has made 10 or more three-point shots in 18 games this season.

Early this season, Kentucky seemed vulnerable to three-point shooting. Not so much lately. Other than the two games against Mississippi State, UK has not surrendered 10 or more treys since Dec. 29.

Daniel Orton noted how the Cats tightened up the three-point defense, especially in transition, the old-fashioned way: through practice. "Getting punished," he said when the defense failed.

UK has a plan for those Cornell marksmen, led by Ryan Wittman, the son of former Indiana star Randy Wittman and a top 10 national shooter (No. 7 in accuracy, No. 8 in treys per game).

"Make them put the ball on the floor," Eric Bledsoe said, "and run into our trees down low."

Of course, Cornell has some tall timber around the basket in 7-footer Jeff Foote.

"We can go into Jeff," Max Groebe said when asked about the Big Red's reliance on three-pointers. "But hopefully (the threes) are falling for us."

Since Selection Sunday, analyst Jay Bilas, who will work the telecast for CBS, has boldly and repeatedly predicted Cornell would advance to Saturday's East Region finals. He continues to believe Kentucky must play well in its plan to disrupt Cornell.

"You're not going to play less than well and beat Cornell," Bilas said.

When asked about Cornell's style, UK Coach John Calipari mentioned Princeton's famous devotion to patterns and back-door cuts.

Bilas mildly disagreed when a reporter suggested the same thing.

"That connotes that they hold the ball," he said. "They don't. They just scored almost 90 points against Wisconsin. They take good opportunities in transition and shoot it. They're efficient, and they score. And they're not afraid of anybody. They just about won at Kansas."

Bilas likened Cornell to Davidson, which won the nation's heart by advancing to a region final two years ago.

"Now they're not as good as Kentucky, but so what?" Bilas said of Cornell. "Davidson was not as good as a lot of people. They weren't as good as Georgetown, but Georgetown lost to them."

Like any team, Cornell is most comfortable when running its system.

But Groebe insisted the Big Red will shrink to insignificance if Kentucky's defense takes away those practiced patterns.

"Most of us having been playing together so long, we just play," Groebe said. "It's not like we're running sets all the time. If they try to take us out of something, we'll figure something out on the fly."

That's exactly what Kentucky wants those smart guys from Cornell to do.

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