When the NCAA Tournament pairings were announced last Sunday, I didn't think Cornell would get this far. It's not because I believed they weren't very good. Believe me, having seen the Big Red play in the Holiday Festival at MSG, I knew how good they were.
I just thought they received a terrible seeding as a twelve and had to face another very good team with too low of a seeding in #5 Temple. The Owls were one of the top five scoring defense teams in the nation. Plus, Temple was a Top Ten ranked team that played a terrific non conference schedule. Finally, Fran Dunphy, the coach of Temple, was the mentor to Steve Donahue, the coach of Cornell, who was an assistant under Dunphy at Penn.
So if anyone knew how the Big Red played it was the Owls. Well, the protege's team dominated the mentor's team. And here was Cornell playing another top five scoring defense team in Wisconsin with a chance to go to the Sweet 16.
Yesterday, I had the same feeling before the game that I had before Davidson played Wisconsin two years ago in the Elite Eight. After personally seeing Stephen Curry dismantle Gonzaga and Georgetown, I knew Wisconsin was going to be another roadkill and they ended up being exactly that. And yesterday, that same feeling told me that Wisconsin wouldn't be able to stop Cornell either. And again, I was right.
The Big Red Machine came right out from the start and jumped out to a 16-4 lead in the first five and a half minutes with Ryan Wittman and Jon Jacques each scoring six points. The Badgers cut the lead to 18-12 solely on the shooting of Jon Leuer who scored all 12 of the Wisconsin points. The Badger would cut the lead to 24-21 on a Jason Bohannon two point jumper with 7:20 left.
But that's as close as Wisconsin would get the rest of the way. Cornell would outscore them 19-10 the rest of the half and enter halftime with a 43-31 lead. They shot 59 percent in the first half. Wittman had 14 points in the first half. And it wasn't like Wisconsin was shooting bad. The Badgers shot 52 percent from the field in the first half. They just couldn't contain the Big Red.
And the second half was a continuation of the end of the first half. The lead swelled to fifteen within the first four minutes of the second half. Leuer and Bohannon tried their best for Wisconsin. But Cornell was just too much for the Badgers vaunted D. In a three minute span, the Big Red's Louis Dale scored eight of their ten points and a thirteen point lead became a twenty point lead, 74-54 with 9:35 left.
You could have turned your TV off there. And in fact CBS decided to change the regional game here in New York to Michigan State-Maryland. Cornell would go onto a 87-69 win. Now stop and think about this. Wisconsin was in the top five in scoring defense in the country giving up 55 points per game. The Big Red put an 87 spot on them.
And Cornell actually shot better in the second half, shooting 63 percent and 61 percent overall from the game. Dale led all scorers with 26 points while Wittman added 24. Leuer led Wisconsin with 23 points.
The article title refers to the Survivor commercials we are being force fed while watching the NCAA Tournament. I thought it was an appropriate title for a seemingly unlikely Sweet 16 matchup (unless you are Jay Bilas, who did predict this). You have the Big Red, who seem like they are right out of the cast of the TV show, "Heroes", a motley group of young kids with various unknown superpowers.
They face the #1 seed Kentucky Wildcats, who outside of Wildcats fans and tournament bracket mongers, are probably the most hated team left in the tournament (ok Duke is a close second). Though John Wall and company have not helped things with their actions, the hate probably stems due to one man, Coach John Calipari.
Steve Donahue has collected a group of talented yet under-recruited players. Wittman, the sharpshooter, is the son of Indiana U and NBA sharpshooter Randy Wittman. Somehow a Mr. Minnesota Basketball candidate with NBA pedigree flew under the radar. Dale, the point guard who knows how to blow by his opponents using 3/4 speed, was barely recruited out of high school and ended up two years ago as the Ivy League player of the year.
Foote, the adept passer, was not even recruited by any Division I school. And apparently the Cornell coaches found out about him due to running into his mom, a nurse, in an emergency room. And in an ironic twist of fate, Steve Coury who started at Kentucky, transferred to Cornell and now gets to play against his original college team.
When you think of Kentucky this season, you think of John Wall and of course the above dance. Ugh. This was during the "Big Blue Madness 2009" and it looks like an NBA All Star introduction. And that's what probably turns off a lot of people to Kentucky. Now Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and the rest of the gang are very talented. But the hype and the celebratory poses and dances during and at the end of games leaves a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths. But if that doesn't turn them off to Kentucky, the next person will.
John Calipari is not one of the most beloved coaches in America. Jayson Williams, the former NBA player now facing jail time for manslaughter, once stated about Calipari "When Cal goes to church and dips his hand in the holy water, watch out, because it starts to bubble."
And of course there is the above dandy between John Chaney and Calipari. Calipari has also left a trail of rubble behind him in his two previous college coaching positions at UMass and Memphis. Calipari led both teams to the Final Four, but each of those teams has had to vacate their wins for those seasons and take down the Final Four banners from the rafters.
In UMass' case, it was found that Marcus Camby had taken money from agents and was eventually declared ineligible by the NCAA. In Memphis' case, a player, believed to be Derrick Rose, had an invalidated SAT score. Now whether Calipari knew about either player's ineligibility will always be a question. But one thing is certain, "He's now the only coach in history to have Final Fours vacated at two different schools." And now in his first year of tenure at Kentucky, Calipari's best player, Wall was suspended two games by the NCAA due to his AAU coach being a certified agent.
As for Kentucky, they knew all about Calipari's past when they hired him. They decided to dance with the devil to bring the Big Blue back to prominence. The question will eventually be "Will Calipari be the first coach in NCAA history to have Final Fours vacated at three schools?"
So Thursday night in Syracuse, it will be a battle of Heroes vs. Villains, well unless you are Ashley Judd or any other Kentucky fan. I'll forgive Ms. Judd, because, well duh (by the way, if she goes to the regional, what's the over under on CBS camera shots of her?). But the rest of the Kentucky fans won't get sympathy from me and the rest of non Wildcat nation.
We'll be rooting for the motley heroes, the Big Red. The team of 3.0 + GPAs. The local Ithaca Boys that can shoot the lights out. It's David vs. Goliath at its finest in the Carrier Dome. Just don't underestimate the Big Red Machine. Ask Temple and Wisconsin about that.