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Big Foote: 7-footer leading dangerous Cornell into March

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Four years ago, Cornell basketball was an afterthought, a mere trivia note as the last team other than Penn or Princeton to represent the Ivy League in the NCAA tournament, in 1988. Today, the Big Red are a model of mid-major development, a decade-long fix-it-up that's peaking and becoming the most talented version in the program's modern history.

Four years ago, Jeff Foote was a gangly, unrecruited walk-on at St. Bonaventure, a program at the nadir of Division I after a devastating academic scandal. Ironically, he was at the school on an academic scholarship after being ignored by everyone as a recruit out of Lockwood, N.Y. Today, he's the pivotal piece on a formidable Cornell squad that's good enough to notch the Ivy League's first NCAA tournament win(s) in 12 seasons.

The tale of how Foote even got to Cornell -- how his mother was a nurse at the hospital where injured Big Red player Khaliq Gant started his recovery from paralysis after a practice collision, how she saw the closeness and compassion of Cornell's players and staff on their daily visits to see Gant, how she envisioned a better place for her son to fulfill his own basketball dreams -- is remarkable enough.

But to have Foote, now a senior with 90 more pounds on his seven-foot frame, fueling a squad that cracked the top 25 for the first time in six decades? To have him duel Cole Aldrich to a stalemate in the Big Red's near miss at Kansas earlier this season? To have him here last Saturday night, after not attempting a shot for almost 32 minutes, take and make two that helped save Cornell's hopes for a third straight Ivy League crown? That's practically unbelievable.

"I saw him briefly at the high school level. It was me and about a dozen D-III schools," joked Cornell coach Steve Donahue. "I thought he could pass, but I never really thought about him again until Khaliq was injured."

While Gant's January 2006 injury and uncertain prognosis cast a pall over the second half of that season, his subsequent recovery and return to campus provided an emotional undercurrent that helped drive a squad principally rebuilt over the final four months of that year.

First to arrive that fall was a heralded freshman class led by now-senior guards Ryan Wittman (whose father, Randy, was a former Indiana and NBA guard) and Louis Dale (who was the Ivy League Player of the Year in 2008). Foote transferred in that winter and spent his year off working on his body while the young Big Red absorbed the initial Ivy learning curve. In January 2008, a more confident Foote became eligible just in time to help Cornell break Princeton's 20-year stranglehold on the league.

"I knew to get to another level I needed to put on a lot of weight," Foote said. "I knew it was going to be a lot about strength. As the strength came, the coaches really started to work with me on my skills."

Over that season and the next, the Big Red went 25-3 in Ivy play. This year's team, which is 21-4 (7-1 in the league), may be even better. While the Big Red take almost two out of every five shots from behind the arc (making 41.2 percent, the nation's fifth-best rate), they're quite competent inside, as well.

In addition to Foote, rugged upperclassmen forwards Jon Jaques, Alex Tyler and former Kentucky starter Mark Coury give Cornell atypical size and depth for an Ivy League team. The Big Red are in the top 50 in 2-point field goal defense, can score effectively in the paint and can bang with anyone. After Cornell won its season opener at Alabama, Crimson Tide forward JaMychel Green noted how hard the battle inside was against the Big Red's frontcourt.

While Wittman, who is averaging 17 points a game this season, is Cornell's best player, Foote is the Big Red's most indispensable. Defensively, he is a presence, blocking two shots per game and deterring or altering countless more. He's also grabbing 8.6 rebounds per game, and ranks 19th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage, according to kenpom.com.

However, it's the continued development of Foote's offense, honed through countless hours this past summer in Minnesota with the Wittmans, that has elevated Cornell. Foote is averaging 12.6 points per game and shooting 61 percent from the field this season and acts as both a pressure release and fulcrum for the Big Red attack.

"When teams start getting to where they have advantages athletically at other spots, we can just go to him," Donahue said. "It's hard to stop him from getting the ball. Then everyone can kind of take a deep breath, make a great decision and score the basketball. We couldn't do that at any point until this season against those type of teams."

Princeton isn't that kind of team, but you couldn't have guessed that from the situation Cornell found itself in last Saturday. After a shocking 15-point loss to 3-15 Penn the night before, the Big Red weren't even leading the Ivy. Now they were deadlocked at 34 with 5:30 left in a typical bump-and-grind with league-leading Princeton. Without a league tournament as a possible bailout, and in danger of falling two games behind with just six league games remaining, the Big Red's season was squarely in the balance.

Then, with an atypically loud Jadwin Gym crowd roaring, Foote found his spot on the right block, swung into the lane and released a hanging floater over the hand of Tigers center Zach Finley. Bucket good, and the foul. Two possessions later, Foote scored again, this time with a baby-soft turnaround J from the left baseline. All net. Big Red by five. Wittman and Dale scored Cornell's final nine points in a gritty 48-45 win that reinstalled Cornell as the league favorite.

"When [Jeff's] playing well and he's making plays like that, I think we're at our best offensively," Wittman said after the game. "Even though he scored those first two or three possessions of the game and then didn't score until the end, just having him out there ... he's such a great passer, he makes great decisions with the ball. Even though he's not scoring, he's a factor."

It's notable that Cornell scored just eight points in the final 10 minutes of the first half after Foote went to the bench with his second foul. Still, the Big Red found a way.

"Jeff and their seniors, they understand what they do well," said Princeton coach Sydney Johnson, himself a former Ivy League Player of the Year. "That's senior experience in college basketball. You have to be seriously talented to overcome that."

Barring more unexpected bumps, Cornell will be in its third straight NCAA tournament, and the unfortunate opponent that draws the Big Red will find out just how seriously talented they -- and their impactful 7-foot center -- are.

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