Driven Cornell is no Cinderella
Cornell became the first Ivy League team to reach the Sweet 16 since 1979
Wisconsin actually shot the ball well, but still couldn't keep up with the Big Red
Cornell's senior-laden squad will have a chance to rattle Kentucky's freshmen
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Minutes after Cornell finished destroying Wisconsin on Sunday to become the first Ivy League team to reach the Sweet 16 since Final Four-bound Penn in 1979, Big Red forward Jon Jaques faced the question every sportswriter must ask himself after a momentous sporting event.
What's your lead?
Jaques, who spent this season blogging for The New York Times, laughed. "I don't know yet," Jaques said. "I've got to think about it. I've got a plane ride to think about it."
But less than a minute later, in an answer to a writer's question, Jaques proved his on-deadline chops when he encapsulated Cornell's weekend in two sentences.
"I don't think we think of ourselves as a Cinderella-type team," Jaques said. "We're better than that."
There was no sense of wonder Sunday as the Big Red walked off the court following its 87-69 demolition of Wisconsin. No dog pile. No jersey pops for the cameras. None of that glass slipper mumbo-jumbo. Cornell had just dispatched No. 5 seed Temple and No. 4 seed Wisconsin by an average of 16.5 points, and Big Red players walked off the court like a team that accomplished the task it came to perform.
We will try to hand Cornell a sling before it faces top-seeded Kentucky in the Sweet 16 in Syracuse on Thursday. The Big Red don't need one. They've proven this season they can stand toe-to-toe with Goliath and trade punches. They pushed Kansas in Lawrence. They made nine three-pointers in the first half against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.
"Those games have already benefited us greatly," Cornell coach Steve Donahue said. "The Kansas environment was a big step for us. That was a huge game. I thought that was a great effort by our guys. I really felt good after that game, even though we lost, and in some ways, I was not happy we lost, but I thought it would be great motivation to get through our league, and if we got this opportunity to play these type of teams that we would be ready."
Will the Big Red be ready for Kentucky? They will be if they can find a way to replicate Sunday's performance. Cornell didn't upset Wisconsin. Cornell punished Wisconsin because the Big Red were that much better than the Badgers. "They're going to be a tough out for anybody in the tournament because they can all shoot, and they all play well off of one another," Wisconsin forward Jon Leuer said. "We just have to give them credit. I mean, they just -- they beat us."
Wisconsin didn't even play poorly. The Badgers shot 52 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three-point range in the first half - and went into the locker room down 12. How often does a No. 12 seed get to empty its bench and let the starters celebrate smacking down a No. 4 seed in the closing minutes of a second-round game? It just doesn't happen, unless the No. 12 seed shoots 61 percent from the field, 53 percent from three-point range and outrebounds its opponent by eight.
In Kentucky, Cornell will find a much more athletic kindred spirit. After a weekend spent pressing the accelerator against opponents that would prefer to idle until five seconds remain on the shot clock, Big Red players will meet a team that runs wide open for 40 minutes. But while John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe are more physically gifted than their Cornell counterparts, they're also freshmen. Cornell starts four seniors and a sophomore. If anyone can rattle the Wildcats' über-athletes and cause a freshman moment, it's a more-athletic-than-it-looks, unselfish team that has seen it all. And while Kentucky's freshmen will play in the NBA sooner than later, it's a safe bet none of them can solve a Rubik's Cube in less than three minutes like Cornell freshman Eitan Chemerinski.
Clips such as that one will run in a loop on SportsCenter this week. People in my line of work will try to paint the Big Red as plucky upstarts who will serve as a sparring partner for a Kentucky team bound for glory in Indianapolis. Don't believe it. Don't believe it for a second.
"I hope the country rallies around us," Jaques said. "But at the same time, they should know we're not your normal underdog."
As the Big Red exited the floor following Sunday's win, they filed past South Region No. 1 seed Duke, which waited to take the floor for its second-round game against Cal. Standing side-by-side, the teams didn't look all that different.
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