Cornell ready to take on college hoops royalty

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As with any team from a one-bid conference, Cornell has a roster full of players ignored by the power players in the sport.

Jeff Foote, though, was so unimpressive as a 7-foot, 170-pound high schooler – the 170 isn’t a typo – that Cornell originally passed him over. Meanwhile, bow-legged point guard Louis Dale essentially recruited himself to Cornell in the final months of the recruiting process.

Jeff Foote has grown into a dominating post player for Cornell.
(Bob Donnan / US Presswire)

Ladies and gentlemen, these are the men who will take on Kentucky’s DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall in the Sweet 16 on Thursday. Cousins and Wall are projected to be top-five picks in the NBA draft if they leave school after their freshman seasons; Wall likely would be the No. 1 overall pick.

In short, this is a matchup between two recruits who could have gone anywhere and two who had to convince Cornell to take them.

Just about the only thing Cousins and Wall have in common with Foote and Dale is that (most likely) their college careers will end after the NCAA tournament. Certainly, the recruiting experiences for Cornell’s starting center and starting point guard have little in common with their counterparts from Kentucky.

Foote now is a 7-foot, 265-pounder who is one of Cornell’s better defenders. With his long arms and good lateral movement (he played soccer in high school), he can block shots – he averages almost two blocks per game – and even get out on the perimeter to defend. He averages 12.4 points and also is a key passer – he’s third on the Big Red in assists – in Cornell’s potent offense.

To say he simply bulked up and got better over the years would be a huge understatement as to his development over the past four seasons. Never mind Cornell; some Division III schools wouldn’t touch Foote out of Spencer-Van Etten High School in Spencer, N.Y., a town of less than 1,000 that’s about 20 miles north of the Pennsylvania border in central New York.

Foote worked out in Cornell’s gym during his senior year for Donahue and several Division III coaches. Foote was incredibly skinny and had a shaved head at the time. Not even the D-III coaches were impressed.

“It was hard to imagine him being a college basketball player at any level,” Donahue said.

Foote did land at a Division I program, though, going to St. Bonaventure on an academic scholarship. He walked-on to the basketball team as a freshman with the Bonnies, a team that had won two games a year earlier as the program dealt with the fallout of an academic scandal under the previous coaching regime. Foote redshirted as a freshman in 2005-06, then left for Cornell before the 2006-07 season.

At St. Bonaventure, an Atlantic 10 program in Olean, N.Y., which is about 140 miles due west of Lockport, Foote began the process of remaking his body. He finished the reinvention at Cornell.

Foote’s mother was a nurse at the hospital where then-Cornell guard Khaliq Gant recovered from temporary paralysis sustained during a practice injury in 2006. His mother nudged Foote to the Cornell players and coaches, who visited Gant on a regular basis.

But even when Foote wanted to transfer, schools were reluctant to give him a scholarship and wanted him to walk on. Eventually, he found a supporter in then-Cornell assistant Zach Spiker, now the coach at Army.

“In high school, I wasn’t the most confident kid and most dominant player,” Foote said. “A lot of people underestimate the year I spent at St. Bonaventure and what it did for my confidence. I think that’s when I grew the most as a person and a basketball player.”

Like Foote, Dale was ignored out of high school. Dale went to The Altamont School, a college preparatory school in Birmingham, Ala., whose high school tuition is a bit over $16,000 per year. Dale had the grades to draw the attention of Cornell’s admissions department – but not necessarily the basketball program.

Louis Dale's efforts to find a school willing to let him develop got him into the Sweet 16.
(Doug Benc / Getty Images)

With help from his brother-in-law, Dale put together a DVD of game highlights set to music, and he packaged that with laminated newspaper clippings and a basketball resume listing his awards. He sent the package to six or seven schools.

“Some schools responded saying they were done with recruiting. Some wanted me to go to prep school. Some didn’t respond,” Dale said.

But Donahue liked the do-it-yourself nature of Dale’s salesmanship. He also couldn’t believe that a guard with Dale’s grades and highlight reel was unsigned in February (the late signing period ends in May).

Cornell assistant Nat Graham predicted Dale, who is naturally bowlegged, would be the second-best guard in the Ivy League as a freshman. He was more than that as a sophomore in 2007-08, earning conference player of the year honors.

“With all the craziness you hear about recruiting, that’s refreshing,” Donahue said.

Wall and Cousins, on the other hand, were willing participants in the craziness. Cousins, who also is from Birmingham, committed to UAB, then Memphis before signing with UK once it hired John Calipari. Wall, from Raleigh, N.C., considered advice from AAU coaches and other advisors and mentors before choosing Kentucky over Duke, North Carolina and Miami in late May last year.

After Cornell eviscerated the top-10 defenses of Temple and Wisconsin in the first weekend of the tournament, the Big Red have every reason to believe they have the same potential as Kentucky to advance again – even if their back stories say otherwise.

“We’re all confident in ourselves and what we can do,” Dale said. “We all want to go out there and we’re going to compete and we’re just going to give it our best shot. As far as playing in the Ivy League versus Kentucky or SEC, I feel I can play on any level.”

Dale always thought that. It’s just that others now are realizing it, too.

David Fox is a college football staff writer for Follow him on Twitter.
Updated Tuesday, Mar 23, 2010