Preview: Duke vs. Cornell

Cornell_logoFollowing an 11-day layoff, the freshly minted #1 ranked basketball team in the nation returns to the court Wednesday night to face Cornell of the Ivy League. Tipoff from Cameron Indoor Stadium is at 7:00 PM.

Duke has a long tradition of scheduling Ivy League opponents, having faced off many times in particular with Harvard, Penn, and Princeton. This is the fifth meeting all-time between the Blue Devils and the Big Red. Duke has won the previous four, with the last being a 14-point decision in January of 2008, in Cameron. It would've been great to have had a game scheduled against Cornell in 2010. That is the year that many readers may remember the Big Red, having won its third straight Ivy title, went on to upset Temple (by 13 points) and #4 Wisconsin in a blowout (by 18) in the NCAA tournament before falling to John Wall and Kentucky in the Sweet 16 in a game that had Big Blue plenty nervous. After that season, Cornell Head Coach Steve Donahue was hired away by Boston College, and replaced by Bill Courtney.

The program has wobbled under Courtney. He apprenticed under Jim Larranaga at George Mason and Tim Welsh at Providence, before moving on to assistant jobs at Virginia under Dave Leitao and Virginia Tech under Seth Greenberg. We'll try not to hold those two latter against him. In his first year in Ithaca, Courtney led Cornell to a 10-18 mark; last year it was 12-16. Not so hot. But they did record a win last year over, ahem, Lehigh.

This season, the Big Red is off to a 4-6 start, with wins over Western Michigan, Presbyterian, Longwood, and Colgate. Only the win over the Blue Hose (that's Presbyterian, but you knew that) was easy. The losses for Cornell have come at the hands of St. Bonaventure, St. Peter's, Wisconsin (by 33), Arizona State (by 11), Stonybrook (by 23) and Vanderbilt (by 11). Again, not so hot.

The Big Red has struggled to score, averaging only 65 ppg. It's hard to score if you can't shoot, and Cornell is only shooting 40% as a team. Amazingly, Cornell has 21 players listed on its roster. I've never seen anything like it. Maybe that's common in the Ivy League, but I had never heard of it. Eighteen different players have gotten PT already this year. Talk about developing depth . . . But seriously, nine guys are averaging at least 14 minutes.

In any event, Cornell's top player is sophomore forward Shonn Miller, but he's only averaging 10 ppg. 21 guys on the roster and only one is averaging double figures in points. The 6'7" Miller, who was the Ivy League's Freshman of the Year last season, is also grabbing 7.4 rebounds per night, and in fact all his numbers are up over last year. He played well in the loss to Vanderbilt on Monday night, scoring 13 and corralling 15 rebounds against the SEC opponent.

The minutes between the other eight regulars are very evenly distributed, from a low of 14 to a high of 23. The 23 minutes go to senior guard Miles Asafo-Adjei. He's not a scorer at all, but is a decent assist man, handing out about 3 per game in those 23 minutes. Freshman guard Nolan Cressler is showing promise. He's got good size at 6'4" and has scored in double figures four times, though he did not play well against Vandy. Jonathan Gray, a 6'3" guard from Tampa starts as well. He's shooting only 30% for the year. Josh Figini, a 6'9" 215 pound forward, also has gotten some starts in the front court, but hasn't done a whole lot with them. 6'6" senior forward Errick Peck has had some nice games off the bench, though he laid an egg against Vanderbilt. Eitan Chermerinski, a 6'8" senior forward, might be one to watch were he not likely matching up against Mason Plumlee when he's in the game. Chemerinski has scored in double figures in four of the Big Red's last five games, after not having done so in any of the team's first five outings.

Those who like to needle Cornell and its students have for decades had their own take on Cornell's alma mater:

Far Above Cayuga's Waters
There's an awful smell
Some say it's Cayuga's Waters
Some say it's Cornell.

It would be too harsh to say that Cornell's basketball team stinks. They don't. But let's be honest: they're going to be overmatched here. This is not a team that is going to be able to play with the #1 team in the land. This little stretch of games here is one that many Duke fans, and probably the coaches as well, have been looking forward to, as opportunities to get players like Alex Murphy and Amile Jefferson some real PT. Both have shown flashes, but not consistency. If it's an issue of confidence for Murphy, playing at home against a lesser opponent, when the Blue Devils should be rolling, would seem to be an opportune time for him to experience some more sustained success, not be subject to a quick hook, and gain some of that confidence. Amile too.

But of course the main event -- we hope -- will be the season debut of Marshall Plumlee. Hard to believe that fans of a program that is #1 in the nation, that has beaten the toughest schedule in the land, that has a (if he continues to play at the level he's played at) first team All-American lottery pick at center and a team that is blending beautifully so far including the incorporation of a stud freshman guard, would focus so much of its attention on the potential introduction of a redshirt freshman center who in any likely scenario won't play more than 10 minutes per game this year, but there it is. There is just so much anticipation of what Marshall Plumlee can bring, for this year and the future. For this year, as the guy who has the size to truly spell his brother down low. And for the future, as perhaps the only true big that Duke may have on the roster next year.  How good is he?

Marshall_PlumleeDon't be disappointed, though, folks, if Marshall isn't the next coming of Anthony Davis against Cornell, or Elon, or Santa Clara. It'll be his first action. He's going to be rusty. He's going to be nervous. He may not be ready for game speed. Don't judge him on one game, or two or three. Give the kid a chance to get comfortable with whatever role the staff carves out for him. It may not turn out to be much of a role this year, and if that's the case, fine. He's going to have a long and productive career in a Blue Devil uniform. He doesn't have to do it all against Cornell. Seems to me that when it comes to Plumlees, patience is rewarded in the long run.

As for the rest of the team, you might expect some post-layoff rust. It's been 11 days. I don't know how rocking Cameron will be given that it is holiday time. It is the first game of a back-to-back undoubtedly created by Coach K to simulate postseason tournament schedules, so it will be good to see how the team reacts to it, in particular Seth Curry and his bum leg and Rasheed Sulaimon in his first go-round. But even if the team starts out a bit sluggish, they'll get it into gear and win this game comfortably. Duke's defensive pressure is going to be like nothing Cornell has ever seen, and Mason Plumlee is going to be able to play right over the top of the Big Red. Cuz the Big Red, in addition to being poor shooters is, well, not that big. The goal here is to brush off any rust, try to find that tremendous groove the team was in over the first four weeks of the season, and get Murphy, Jefferson, and Marshall Plumlee some time. Oh, and avoid injuries. Do all of that and it'll be mission accomplished.