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,
The tale of how Foote even got to Cornell -- how his mother was a nurse at the hospital where injured Big Red player
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
"I saw him briefly at the high school level. It was me and about a dozen D-III schools," joked Cornell coach
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
"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
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
"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
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.