March 16, 2010
The secret to the Cornell basketball team's transformation from Ivy League also-ran to trendy NCAA tournament upset pick is an aging 14-bedroom, four-bathroom house near campus affectionately known as "The Dog Pound."
Thirteen players and a team manager live in that house, which hosts everything from LOST viewing parties, to ping-pong tournaments, to fiercely competitive games of Super Smash Bros on Nintendo 64.
Although the fridge is typically stocked with expired milk and the couches are often strewn with empty pizza boxes, Cornell players insist the team chemistry they've built living together makes the chaos worthwhile. The Big Red won its third consecutive Ivy League championship earlier this month, earning a No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament and a first-round date with fifth-seeded Temple on Friday in Jacksonville.
"I definitely think [living together] helps," senior Louis Dale told the Cornell Daily Sun. "Us being close friends allows us to make sure that basketball is always fun for us. But at the same time we know that we have to take care of business and work hard and all that sort of thing. It helps a lot with chemistry on the court."
If the consensus throughout the Ivy League's basketball history has been that third place is the best a program other than Penn or Princeton could hope for, overthrowing that power structure may this Cornell team's greatest feat. The Big Red have amassed a sparkling 38-4 record in Ivy League play the past three seasons, ending a 45-year run in which Penn or Princeton won or shared the conference title 42 times.
The foundation of Cornell's success is an eight-player senior class that created enough interest in Big Red basketball that a team that for years played to sparse crowds at Newman Arena now sells out games weeks in advance. Headlining the group are three players: Sweet-shooting forward Ryan Wittman, 7-foot former St. Bonaventure walk-on Jeff Foote and Dale, a dynamic point guard.
With such an experienced roster that has endured NCAA tournament losses to Stanford and Missouri the past two seasons, Cornell isn't playing for moral victories against Temple. This Big Red team proved it can compete with power-conference teams during the season, taking down Alabama and St. John's and famously leading top-ranked Kansas into the final three minutes in January.
"Cornell's good," Kansas coach Bill Self said after that game. "Those guys can shoot it, they've got a 7-footer inside who's active, can score and can defend the post without forcing help. They've got a good team. They're very well coached."
They've also fostered unparalleled team chemistry, which manifests itself both on the court and off it. It's evident in how they share the ball so unselfishly, how they eat together at their favorite Ithaca burger joint a few times a week and how they once even played a game of truth or dare together on a seven-hour bus ride between Dartmouth and Ithaca.
Cornell coach Steve Donahue told the Washington Post earlier this season that he's never heard of another college team living under the same roof like his does.
"If you tried to get your players to do this, ordered them to do it, no way would it happen," he said this week. "Our guys just did it. It was their idea. That's why it works."