Big Red rolls into Ivy League power

PHILADELPHIA - Think Cornell hoops is nothing but bookish eggheads passing time on the court before studying for the next exam?

Smarten up.

The Big Red is the brainy basketball bully of the Ivy League.

And it doesn't take a Nobel laureate to know this year's team has more than a third consecutive NCAA tournament berth in mind.

No Ivy team has won an NCAA tournament game since 1998, when fifth-seeded Princeton beat No. 12-seed UNLV, 69-57.

"We want to win in the tournament this year," leading scorer Ryan Wittman said. "Going there was nice. It was a lot of fun and everything, but we have higher aspirations this year."

Winning consistently in the Ivy League can prove as problematic as nailing a perfect SAT score. There are no basketball scholarships (tuition, room and board is more than $50,000 at Cornell), and the demanding academic standards further reduce an already small recruiting pool.

Building a winning program also takes patience. Ask coach Steve Donahue.

Donahue, a 10-year assistant under Fran Dunphy at Penn, won 12 games his first two seasons at Cornell and had losing records his first six seasons. But Cornell's administration stood behind Donahue and gave him time to build a contender.

"At Cornell, you don't have the luxury of trying to out-recruit somebody," Donahue said.

Cornell's faith was rewarded.

Cornell won the Ivy League title and advanced to the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons. Led by seniors Wittman, Jeff Foote, and Louis Dale, Big Red won at La Salle 78-75 on Tuesday for their eighth consecutive victory and are 10-2 overall.

"I hope this team can play in any league at this point and be successful," Donahue said.

Wittman scored a career-high 34 points to become Cornell's all-time leading scorer. Wittman, whose father, Randy, played and coached in the NBA, was more focused on the team than his accomplishments.

"Doesn't matter," Wittman said. "All that matters is we got the 'W' tonight."

Even with his famous pedigree, Wittman was not heavily recruited out of high school. He was a little frail, had not fully grown into his 6-foot-7 frame and a deep thigh bruise the summer going into this senior year limited his activity. When other teams moved on, Cornell's assistant coaches stuck with him.

"They understand his role is to go shoot the ball and score for us," Donahue said. "He embraces it and his teammates embrace it."

The 7-foot Foote was another random recruit. His mother was the head nurse at the intensive care unit for former Big Red guard Khaliq Gant after an on-court collision nearly left him paralyzed. She was touched by how Cornell players and coaches rallied around Grant, and casually mentioned that her son was a 7-footer unhappy as a walk-on at St. Bonaventure.

She told Donahue, "I would love for my son to be in that environment."

All Foote has done is earn Ivy League defensive player of the year honors last year, add 5 inches to his vertical leap and become a double-double force.

How about Dale? He was a state triple-jump champion in high school in Birmingham, Ala., with virtually no basketball offers. He was uninterested in a walk-on opportunity at UAB, and sent a highlight tape to Cornell after a school brochure arrived in his mailbox. Dale, who majors in policy analysis and management, was Ivy League player of the year in 2007-08 and is the school's career assist leader.

"I didn't want the opportunity to just be a walk-on," Dale said. "I wanted to be on the team."

Three overlooked players with toughness, intelligence and something to prove have helped Cornell beat teams this year such as Alabama, Massachusetts, Bucknell, Saint Joseph's and St. John's. A Jan. 6 game at No. 1 Kansas looms.

Dale knew Cornell was destined for success his sophomore year when the Big Red led No. 9 Duke late in the first half and threw a serious upset scare into the Blue Devils before losing.

"I think that's when it kind of opened everybody's eyes like, wow, we can really achieve something," Dale said. "We knew that we were a young team then and if we kept improving each game, each practice, we could be something really special."