Friday March 19th, 2010

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. --Don't be afraid to fall in love with Cornell.

I know you've been hurt before. Hey, we all have. Some double-digit seed stole your heart on a Friday in March and then smashed it to pieces it two days later by playing valiantly -- but ultimately losing -- to a more athletic, better-funded program. But 12th-seeded Cornell is different. Just look at its 78-65 thumping of fifth-seeded Temple on Friday and give in to your feelings. Come next week, Cornell might still be in your life.

Look, I know this has all the earmarks of a torrid March weekend fling. A scrappy bunch of non-scholarship (the Ivy League doesn't allow athletic grants-in-aid) players at an elite school play together for four years and finally get their one shining moment. They're led by a deadeye shooter (forward Ryan Wittman), a bowlegged point guard (Louis Dale), a New York Times blogger (forward Jon Jaques) and a 7-foot center (Jeff Foote) who walked on at St. Bonaventure and then transferred to Cornell after his mother -- a nurse -- took care of a Cornell player and fell in love with the team and staff. Thirteen players and a manager live in a pizza box-littered house on the edge of campus called the Dog Pound.

How could you not fall in love with them?

Trust me, these guys are man enough to stick around. Did you see how cool they were as they creamed a Temple team a lot of people thought deserved a three seed? Never once did they act like underdogs.

OK, so they're not made of stone. After the final buzzer, when they ambled over to salute the Cornell cheering section, Foote's upper lip curled and stuck for a second before a holy-cow-did-that-just-happen grin spread across his face. But these guys have eight seniors. They've been through it all. Forgive them a sentimental moment.

"Each year, we built," Jaques said. "Now we're winning a tournament game. That feeling on the court was incredible. It's indescribable."

When the Big Red returned to the locker room, coach Steve Donahue told his players to enjoy the moment and then set it aside. "This is a tournament," Wittman remembered Donahue saying. "It's not a one-game deal."

Donahue knows he doesn't have a typical mid-major one-hit-wonder roster. Foote (16 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks on Friday) is as athletic as any 7-footer in the country, and he somehow finds a way to elongate himself on defense. When Cornell switched to a zone in the first half with Foote stationed at the free-throw line, Temple couldn't get the ball by him. His arms seemed to stretch from sideline to sideline. Wittman, the Big Red's leading scorer, isn't the traditional mid-major shot-chucker. He's also long (6-7) and athletic, and he found open shots Friday because he and his teammates didn't simply stand behind the three-point line and launch. Dale (21 points, 7 assists) sets everything in motion. He's 5-11, but he's fearless. On Friday, he never hesitated to charge into the paint, even when 6-11 Owl Michael Eric stood sentry.

Still don't trust that Cornell won't break your heart on Sunday? Consider this from Bill Self, who coaches the tournament's No. 1 overall seed, Kansas. On Jan. 6 in Allen Fieldhouse, the Big Red pushed the Jayhawks to the brink before losing, 71-66. "They could beat anybody, regardless of their seed," Self told ESPN.com the next day. "I'll make a prediction now. They'll be a team that nobody wants to play. If they make shots, they can beat anybody."

Shoot, the Big Red thought they should have beaten Kansas. "That game was 42 seconds too long," guard Chris Wroblewski said. Said Wittman: "We felt like we let one get away from us."

Isn't that the kind of confidence you want from your March fling?

So go ahead. Fall in love. You and the Big Red could still be dancing next week.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.