Welcome to the Sweet Sixteen, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation. It's nice to be here after a long, long absence. And welcome to our opponents, the Cornell Big Red.
Tonight's game is a classic David vs. Goliath matchup. This game reminds me very much of the 2002 NCAA tournament East Regional semifinal. That regional also took place in the Carrier Dome, and the game was the Southern Illinois Salukis versus the Connecticut Huskies. Everybody outside the state of Connecticut was a Saluki that day, and everybody outside the state of Kentucky (plus the extended Wildcat family around the world of which there are a great many members), everybody in America is likely to be a Big Red fan tonight.
That's just fine, and the Big Red have earned this (hopefully) one-night love affair by playing outstanding basketball so far in the NCAA Tournament. I can't remember a 12-seed ever putting on a shooting display anything like what Cornell demonstrated in the first two rounds of the tournament in dismissing the Temple Owls and the Wisconsin Badgers, and it's easy to see why so many in the media and elsewhere are pulling for the lovable, basketball-playing smart guys from Ithaca.
First, a quick comparison:
|Rank and Records||CORN||UK|
|Strength of Schedule||#190||#44|
|RPI Top 50||3-3||10-1|
More after the jump.
How They Got Here
Cornell got here by wining the Ivy League outright and getting an automatic bid. The NCAA Tournament committee seeded the Big Red as a #12 seed, which was universally reviled by observers as a major underseed.
As usual, we have our game dashboard, courtesy of A Sea of Blue member Sylvar:
Four Factors Analysis
But there are a few things worth pointing out. Briefly, looking at efficiencies, we see that Cornell has only recently become more efficient offensively that the Wildcats, and Kentucky is on an upswing. Cornell will be hard pressed to maintain this level of efficiency against Kentucky, but Kentucky may have trouble maintaining theirs, also.
On the four factors, there really isn't much to say that I haven't said in the referenced posts above, but I will pint out that even though the Big Red is a much better shooting team than Kentucky, that is the only significant advantage they have over the Wildcats. The offensive rebounding statistic is particularly relevant in this game, because if UK dominates the offensive glass, it will be big trouble for the Big Red.
Finally, looking quickly at the miscellaneous stats, you see that Kentucky favors a higher pace than Cornell, but not a great deal higher. Cornell likes to take their first good look, so even though the Big Red will be more of a half-court team than UK is, they aren't a slow-down team. If they try to take the air out of the ball, it could as easily work against them as for them, but they won't want Kentucky to run amok in the open floor.
Big Red Roster
Cornell Big Red Basketball Roster
|Louis Dale||12||G||Starter, 2nd leading scorer, leading asst, 3-pt threat||180||5-11||senior|
|Jeff Foote||1||C||Starter, major contributor, leading rebounder||265||7-0||senior|
|Max Groebe||11||G||Minor reserve, 3-pt threat||200||6-4||junior|
|Jon Jaques||25||F||Starter, 3-pt threat||220||6-7||senior|
|Errick Peck||5||F||Minor reserve||215||6-6||freshman|
|Geoff Reeves||15||G||Major reserve, 3-pt threat||180||6-4||senior|
|Adam Wire||24||F||Major reserve||222||6-5||junior|
|Ryan Wittman||20||F||Starter, go-to guy, leading scorer, 3-pt threat||215||6-7||senior|
|Chris Wroblewski||3||G||Starter, 3-pt threat||180||6-0||sophomore|
Buccaneers Player Stats
This is the ultimate test between heady experience and talented youth. It isn't that the Big Red are untalented -- they clearly are, and they are the best 3-point shooting team in America. They run their offense with precision and poise, and they are not going to be intimidated by the Kentucky Wildcats -- at least not at first.
Even though the Big Red are mostly a man-to-man team, I don't think they will try that on Kentucky. Of course, you never know -- these guys know how to execute a man-to-man against superior athletes, and they may well mix that in with some zone, or some junk. What I do know is that coach Steve Donahue will have a few surprises up his sleeve for the Wildcats, and Kentucky has to be ready for them.
The biggest factor in this game on offense is likely to be how often Kentucky can get it into the post, and what Cornell does about it. Jeff Foote is a skilled big man, but he is no match for DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton or Patrick Patterson. So how Cornell chooses to defend the post will present Kentucky with several options to score, and those options will largely determine how well Kentucky does on offense.
I expect the Big Red to pack in the zone and dare UK to shoot from the perimeter. If Kentucky is on from outside, then the Big Red are doomed to go the way of the Wildcats' previous tournament foes. But if Kentucky is not on from the perimeter, they are going to have to figure out a way to defeat the zone for good shots.
Defensively, the big question is how well Kentucky's defense can disrupt the motion offense of the Big Red. The way Cornell plays is not all that dissimilar from what the Mississippi St. Bulldogs do offensively, and UK had a lot of trouble with MSU this year -- although, to be fair, UK shot the ball very badly both times, and Foote is not the shot-altering threat that Jarvis Varnado is. The perimeter length of John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Darius Miller, Darnell Dodson and DeAndre Liggins should make it tougher for the Big Red to get off shots, but that theory has yet to be tested.
One thing UK cannot afford to do is double the post. Cousins, Patterson, Orton and Stevenson are going to have to deny Foote the ball as much as possible and play him one-on-one if he gets it. Helping off Cornell is a recipe for disaster, as all of them can shoot from outside but Foote, and he won't be going out there for any reason. This game will sorely test the defensive skill of Kentucky's players, and Cousins, Patterson et. al. must be careful not to send Cornell to the line, where they are deadly.
Finally, UK must make free throws. Cornell is not shy about putting teams on the line, and they are likely to put UK there a lot. The Wildcats must make them pay for that strategy.
Tough game tonight, Wildcat fans, ans this may well be a large, hostile crowd. Kentucky needs to shake off any nerves early and bring their "A" game. This is a game the 'Cats can win easily if they play their best, but if they don't it is up for grabs.