UK Men's Basketball

Cornell excels in chemistry

An Ivy League school might consider itself lucky to find one player who develops into a solid Division I player. Cornell got lucky at least three times, a big reason the Ivy League champion finds itself facing No. 1 seed Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament East Regional semifinals Thursday night.

Consider Jeff Foote, Cornell's 7-foot center. His college career began as a 205-pound walk-on player for St. Bon aventure. His mother, Wanda, worked as a nurse at an El mira, N.Y., hospital. When Cornell guard Khaliq Gant was sent to that hospital for treatment after injuring his spine in a January 2006 practice, she noticed the attentiveness of the Cornell coaches and players.

Wanda Foote, who befriended the Cornell coaches, suggested to her son that he consider a transfer to Cornell.

During the next three years, Jeff Foote gained 50 pounds and became an All-Ivy League player and two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Earlier this season, he battled Kansas big man Cole Aldrich to a draw: 12 points and six rebounds for Foote; 13 points and nine rebounds for Aldrich.

Consider Ryan Wittman, the sharpest of Cornell's three-point sharpshooters and the son of former Indiana star Randy Wittman. Cornell Coach Steve Donahue has noted how lucky the Big Red were to get Ryan Wittman. That good fortune started when the player sustained a deep thigh bruise that hindered him throughout his senior year of high school. Big Ten schools doubted his athleticism, so Wittman fell into Cornell's lap.

He became only the fifth Ivy League player to score 2,000 points in a career.

Consider Louis Dale, the 5-foot-11 senior point guard. A native of Birmingham, Ala., Dale drew no interest from programs in the Southeastern or Atlantic Coast conferences. So he created a video tape of his high school highlights and a scrapbook of clippings, and sent them to various schools. Only Cornell responded with an invitation to make an official recruiting visit.

Donahue prepared the usual charm offensive. But it wasn't needed. When Dale arrived on campus, he handed the coach a check his mother wrote to pay for the application fee.

He became an All-Ivy League player.

Consider Jon Jaques, a native Californian best known as a blogger for The New York Times. In his first three seasons, he scored 33 points in 34 games. He did not get off the bench in this season's first three games.

Then a teammate's injury created opportunity. After a freshman failed to seize the chance, Don ahue tried Jaques. On a team that leads the nation in three-point shooting accuracy, Jaques has made 47.2 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and averaged seven points.

Having won its third straight Ivy League championship, Cornell beat Temple and Wisconsin last week to post the school's first ever NCAA Tournament victories. No Ivy League team had won an NCAA Tournament game since Penn in 1979.

It's a veteran team with eight seniors. All are roommates in an off-campus house the team shares.

During a teleconference Tuesday, Wittman noted how well those veteran players have bonded.

"Really strong team chemistry," he said. "That really makes basketball fun."

Of course, the Ivy League is different. League teams will not print media guides next year. To get a head start on the change, Cornell did not print media guides this season.

There are no scholarships. All financial aid is based on need. With the cost of tuition, room and board set at $52,000 a year, need is not uncommon.

It's a team well tested by earlier games at Kansas, Syracuse, Alabama and St. John's. The five-point loss at Kansas marked the first time an Ivy League team had stayed within single digits of a No. 1 team since Bill Bradley-led Prince ton lost to Cazzie Russell-led Michigan 80-78 in 1964.

Cornell has played in the Carrier Dome the last three seasons, so the surroundings will be familiar. With the Carrier Dome only 57 miles from Cornell, the school hopes for good crowd support against Kentucky.

After his team beat Cornell 88-73, Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said the Big Red could compete in the Big East. "They would win games in our league," he said. "They would win a bunch of games."

No wonder Jaques balked at the "Cinderella" tag the media tried to pin on Cornell last week.

"We don't consider ourselves a Cinderella team," he said. "I think we're one of the best teams in the country."

College basketball analyst Jay Bilas agreed. On Selection Sunday, he picked Cornell to advance to the Elite Eight.

"They're an older team with veteran players," he said. "They're the best three-point shooting team in the country. Ryan Wittman is a great three-point shooter. Not a good one. He's a great three-point shooter."

Bilas likened Cornell to the George Mason team that advanced to the 2006 Final Four.

"They're the real thing," Bilas said. "They're good. If Kentucky plays well, Kentucky wins. If Kentucky doesn't play well, it could be a totally different story."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader