(14) Cornell vs. (3) Missouri

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  • Game info: 3:00 pm EDT Fri Mar 20, 2009
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BOISE, Idaho (AP)—In one of those wryly uncomfortable episodes of “The Office,” it’s hard to tell if all those Cornell Men out there are in on the joke, or just the butt of it.

Maybe the same thing can be said about Cornell when NCAA tournament time rolls around, too.

The Ivy League makes its annual appearance in the tournament this year in the form of 14th-seeded Cornell (21-9)—the semi-obsession of the Dartmouth and Harvard-educated writers of the NBC sitcom and first-round opponents of Missouri (28-6) on Friday in the West Regional.

It doesn’t take a 4.0 grade-point average to figure this one out: Save a rare upset or two by Princeton over the years, these things usually don’t go well for the bookish set. Last year, Cornell lost 77-53 to Stanford in the first round.

But in the end, it really doesn’t matter. As the old joke goes—better beat ‘em now, because we’ll all probably be working for ‘em soon enough.

“I guess so,” said junior guard Louis Dale, who turned down an offer to walk on at UAB to take a spot in the Ivy League, which doesn’t offer athletic scholarships. “Coming from an Ivy League school, we kind of have that label as being really nerdy kids or smart kids. I’m sure a lot of people think that or say those type of things. It just comes along with it, I guess.”

Several of the Big Red players say that, yes, they’ve seen the episode where Dwight Schrute wears his Cornell sweatshirt to the office and brings in his Red Bear bobblehead simply to antagonize Andy—a true “Cornell Man,” who considers it blasphemy for non-alums to wear the Carnelian red.

There’s also the show where Cornell quarterback Nathan Ford gets mentioned.

“He said he got, like, 150 texts after that,” said guard Adam Gore.

But before we dismiss the Cornell guys as nothing more than sitcom fodder, we should listen to Ryan Wittman, a unanimous pick to this season’s All Ivy League team—and son of former NBA player and coach Randy Wittman.

Wittman heard ESPN commentator Jay Bilas, a Duke player in the early 1980s, ripping on Ivy League competition last week—saying any player from the Atlantic Coast Conference would be player of the Year in the Ivy League. Strangely enough, Wittman also remembers watching ESPN earlier this year, when the highlights led with a big upset: It was the night Harvard (Ivy) beat Boston College (ACC).

“I never saw him play, so I don’t know,” Wittman said of Bilas. “But it was pretty weird that Harvard beat BC. So, I guess the fifth- or sixth-place team in our league just beat a bunch of players of the year.”

Not surprisingly, you will hear no such disrespect coming from the camp of Missouri, a rigorous academic school itself with just a tad more hoops tradition than they have in Ithaca.

The Tigers were perennial players in the NCAA back in the days of Norm Stewart. Then, NCAA problems hit and some early success under his successor, Quin Snyder, quickly faded away.

Enter coach Mike Anderson, a disciple of Nolan Richardson, who is showing his national championship ring from Arkansas to his players and calling his version of breakneck basketball “The Fastest 40 Minutes of Basketball”—which feels and looks like hell to many of those trying to stop it.

And play it.

“I like winners,” Anderson said, when asked about the trouble he encounters recruiting players who blanch at diminished playing time necessitated by the up-tempo style.

“But 28 minutes of the way we play, you’re getting quality minutes, not just quantity minutes,” he said. “I’d say 28 minutes here is like 38 minutes somewhere else.”

Making the most of it have been Leo Lyons (14.2 points, six rebounds a game) and DeMarre Carroll (16.8, 7.3), who was chosen the Big 12 tournament MVP when the Tigers won it all last week. The Tigers are in the tournament for the first time in six years.

“All year, I kept telling the guys, `We’re in the hunt for something. I don’t know what it is,”’ Anderson said. “We won the conference championship. That put us in the NCAA and we’re here to dance and we want to keep dancing.”

So does Cornell, though the Big Red does pretty much everything to a different beat than the rest of the college basketball world is used to.

No conference tournament. No cushy classes. Almost all games on Friday nights and Saturdays to minimize missed class time.

Coach Steve Donahue said he hears some of the nightmare stories about players around the country who get into trouble off the court. He doesn’t worry about that stuff at Cornell.

“In reality, they really just care about what they’re doing,” Donahue said. “They have much more focused goals in their life than the typical 19-, 20-year-old kid does. It just makes it so much easier to coach basketball that way.”

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