Big Red Knocks Down Big Two

By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

No other conference has been ruled by two teams like the Ivy League has been dominated by Penn and Princeton in men's basketball. The two schools have won or shared 46 of the last 50 championships.

But in this week's NCAA tournament, neither the Quakers nor the Tigers will be carrying the Ivy banner. That honor will be left to the Cornell Big Red, which in 1988 was also the last Ivy League team other than Penn or Princeton to make the tournament.

Cornell (22-5, 14-0) clinched its second championship in school history with an 86-53 victory over Harvard on March 1. (The Ivy League is the only conference that does stage a postseason tournament to determine its automatic NCAA qualifier.) The No. 14 seeded Big Red will play third-seeded Stanford in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday.

"Penn and Princeton dominated the league for the last 20 years," Cornell junior guard Adam Gore said. "To be the team to win a championship other than them is exciting. I think it shows we've put in the work that's necessary. It's just hard to explain the feeling that it brings. It's not easy. Obviously, not a lot of teams have been able to do it. We're just proud to bring a championship back to Cornell after so long."

Some say the Big Red benefited from timing. Penn, which won the last three league championships, is in the midst of a rebuilding season. The Quakers were the most inexperienced team in the league, starting four freshmen in some games. Both teams underwent coaching changes. After 29 years of stability under Hall of Fame coach Pete Carril, the Tigers are on their fourth coach in 11 seasons. Glen Miller, who was at Brown for seven seasons, became the Quakers coach in 2006, replacing Fran Dunphy who led Penn to 10 league titles before moving across town to Temple.

"Cornell is a very good team," Miller said. "But the fact of the matter is, Penn and Princeton aren't nearly where they have been in recent memory. I have confidence that we will get the program to the level it was at, but right now, we're just not at the level where the program is used to being at, and obviously, Princeton isn't, either."

The Big Red has been on a steady rise since Steve Donahue took over the program in September 2000. Before arriving in Ithaca, Donahue spent 10 seasons as Dunphy's assistant at Penn. During his time in Philadelphia, the Quakers won six league titles and went undefeated in conference play four times, including three consecutive seasons without a league loss.

"The great thing about this year is that it wasn't a case of Penn and Princeton just slipping up and someone else lucking their way into an Ivy League title," said Jake Wilson, a Penn grad who runs the Web site, "This Cornell team is every bit the equal of past Ivy League champions. They're dominant. Steve has built this team up over the years to the point that they are a worthy Ivy League champion and can give someone a real scare in the NCAA tournament much like the Penn and Princeton teams of the past have done."

The season before Donahue arrived, Cornell won three Ivy games. The Big Red won a combined five league games in his first two seasons. Then in 2004-05, the team finished alone in second place. Injuries derailed the Cornell's title chances the past two seasons. But things gelled this season.

The Big Red, which has won 16 in a row and 18 of 19, is led by a pair of sophomores, Ryan Wittman and Louis Dale. Wittman, the son of NBA coach Randy Wittman, has the ninth-best three-point shooting percentage in Division I (47 percent), and Dale, the Ivy League player of the year, ranks in the top 10 nationally in free throw shooting (90.6 percent). As a team, Cornell has the fifth-best field goal percentage in the country, just under 50 percent.

With the Big Red losing only one senior and bringing in a strong recruiting class, the Ivy League's big two might need to get used to having some company.

"I really feel that [the league] has changed since I got here at Cornell," Donahue said. "That it was about time that this was going to happen. . . . Just look at the hirings that are going on in our league and the aggressiveness in the recruiting. It's much different than it was 15-20 years ago when I was at Penn. I just think these programs and these schools want to win in college basketball, and [the league is] going to be more balanced. I have too much respect for the other programs now to not feel that that won't happen."

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