Cornell's NCAA Tournament magic doesn't have to be an Ivy League rarity.

The stadium scene.
March 25 2010 12:22 PM

Big Red Run

Cornell's NCAA Tournament magic doesn't have to be an Ivy League rarity.

Cornell's basketball team. Click image to expand.
Tournament victories like Cornell's over Wisconsin don't have to be a rarity

Thursday night's NCAA Tournament game between Cornell University and the University of Kentucky has been portrayed as a clash of opposites. On one side are the communal-living, homework-doing, sharpshooting Ivy Leaguers. On the other are the one-and-done, NBA-bound knuckleheads with a cheating coach.

There is some truth to this polar tale of the tape. Cornell and its partners in the Ancient Eight are indeed the oddballs of college sports. And Kentucky is Kentucky. While both schools belong to the NCAA, they have—duh—vastly different recruiting, admissions, and academic standards. But there are reasons beyond luck and pluck that this white-as-Hoosiers, Friday Night Lights-quoting team that plays in a 4,473-seat gym with fold-up bleachers is just two wins away from the Final Four. Despite the popular thinking about the Ivy League's athletic feebleness, the Cornell Big Red don't have to be a once-in-a-generation outlier. For the first time in three decades, everything is in place for Ivy League schools to be competitive in big-time college basketball. The only question is whether Cornell and its cohort care to seize that opportunity.

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In hyping the Big Red's underdog status, the media have at least done a fine job detailing the unlikely individual stories on the Cornell team. Seven-foot center Jeff Foote transferred to the school because his mother, a nurse, happened to treat a Cornell player who was seriously injured during a practice; his teammates seemed like nice boys, so she told coach Steve Donahue about her son. Point guard Louis Dale, an Alabama native with a standout GPA, hadn't heard of Cornell when he received a letter from the school. No one else of note was recruiting him, so he sent the school a highlight tape and a scrapbook that Donahue says looked like "a sixth-grader's project." Shooting forward Ryan Wittman is the son of an NBA player, but he was thin and injured entering his senior year of high school. Major basketball programs didn't give him much of a look.

These warm anecdotes prove a larger point: The stars have to align for an Ivy League school to reach the Sweet 16. Cornell has four senior starters and two more coming off the bench, one of whom actually started at Kentucky. The key players on the 2010 squad joined a 13-15 team, played as freshmen, and improved. They grew and matured physically; Foote has gained 60 pounds. They improved athletically. No key player suffered a major injury. They listened to their coach and, thanks to their longevity, learned to play collectively and instinctively.

"It is a classic example of everything coming together," says Temple coach Fran Dunphy, whose team was routed by Cornell in the first round of the tournament last week. "If I were not a victim, I would have enjoyed it even more."

Dunphy coached 17 seasons at Penn—the last Ivy school to win two games in the NCAA tournament, when it reached the Final Four in 1979. His best team, in 1995, included three future NBA players—Jerome Allen, Matt Maloney, and Ira Bowman—and started five seniors. That Quakers squad was assembled in a similar fashion to Cornell. Allen was recruited nationally, but the Penn coach had an in because Allen's high school coach had given Dunphy his first job. Maloney, another local player, transferred from Vanderbilt after another point guard, Bill McCaffrey, transferred there from Duke. Another starter was overlooked by bigger schools. Another was a skinny shooter who improved during college.  

From 1963 to 2007, Penn and Princeton won 42 of 45 Ivy League championships. Under Yoda-like coach Pete Carril— "Sit. Down. Smurf," Penn students chanted—Princeton frustrated more-skilled opponents with its methodical, low-scoring offense and produced an occasional NCAA win. In the 1970s, Penn was a national power, reaching as high as No. 2 in the polls. Penn's best teams, like Cornell's now, could run and score and bump bodies, a necessity for winning multiple tournament games. "The best Ivy teams had offensive arsenals," says Penn athletic director Steve Bilsky, the captain on that No. 2 Penn team, which went 28-1 in 1970-71.

If the blueprint for success exists, why haven't the Ivies built such teams more than once every decade? (Before Cornell, the 1998 Princeton Tigers were the last Ivy League team to win a tournament game.) The conventional wisdom is that it's all about the money. And to some extent it is. The Ivy League is at a huge competitive disadvantage in Division I basketball because it does not offer athletic scholarships. In the 1960s and '70s, when tuition to an Ivy League school was less than $5,000, this wasn't a huge problem. For elite athletes, the promise of an Ivy education, decent financial aid packages, and the presence of a big-enough basketball stage made that cost worthwhile. Then tuition skyrocketed, the basketball meat market grew, and the more academically competitive power-conference schools used even the marginal expense of the Ivies to dissuade recruits. "When I went back as head coach, sitting in front of prospects and parents, the first question night after night was, How much is it going to cost us?" Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage, who played at Penn in the early '70s and coached there in the early '80s, once told me.

With costs now exceeding $50,000 a year, it should be impossible for an Ivy League school to score a blue-chipper. But in the last decade, even as tuition has continued its steep upward trajectory, the financial pressures have lessened. Princeton took the first step, in 2001, replacing all loans with grants. A few years later, Harvard made school free for students from families earning less than $60,000 a year, and then significantly reduced costs for those earning up to $180,000. The moves weren't directed at athletes, but they've had athletic consequences. For parents of prospective Ivy athletes, the money part—at least for low- and middle-income families—isn't always the deciding factor.

The academics part is trickier. Since 1985, the Ivies have used a formula known as the Academic Index—a combination of standardized test scores and class rank—to determine whether an athlete qualifies for admission. No athlete with an A.I. below 171 is supposed to be admitted, and each school's pool of admitted athletes can't be more than one standard deviation from the university-wide average. Harvard, Yale and Princeton have the highest average (estimated at 220); Columbia and Cornell have the lowest (210).