“Cornell University sports” usually conjures names like Ken Dryden, Joe Nieuwendyk and Ned Harkness.
Guess what, though? They’re playing some serious basketball in Ithaca these days, as Siena found out last year, when the Ivy League champion Big Red defeated Siena, 83-77, early in the season, when the Saints were fresh off one of the biggest victories of the season, over Stanford in the home opener at the Times Union Center.
Siena will play host to the 2-1 Big Red at 7 tonight at the Times Union Center with the knowledge that Cornell is more than a hockey school.
“They certainly got our attention,” Siena head coach Fran McCaffery said. “A lot of people like to say that was a letdown after the Stanford game, but we got beat. That was no letdown, we played hard. We didn’t play great, but we played reasonably well, and the reason we didn’t play so great was they had something to do with it. They just flat-out beat us.”
Cornell held Siena without a point in the final 2:48 and finished the game shooting 55 percent from the field off 22 assists.
Louis Dale did much of the damage, scoring 20 points with nine rebounds and six assists, but he missed Cornell’s first three games with a hamstring injury and probably won’t play tonight.
Even without him, Cornell has good shooters and a 7-foot center in Jeff Foote, and is experienced after winning a school-record 22 games, including 16 in a row, and becoming the first school other than Penn or Princeton to win the Ivy League in 20 years.
The Big Red were seeded No. 14 in the NCAA tournament and lost to Siena’s old friend Stanford, 77-53.
“Our players know and understand what happened last year up in Ithaca,” McCaffery said. “When you see a team shoot like they do, there’s very few teams that I’ve coached against that do that, but they also pass it well. They get the ball to the shooters, they don’t panic, they move the ball around. And they’re experienced, like we are.”
Cornell’s leading scorer is Ryan Wittman, with 25, 25 and 24 points, respectively, in a 79-69 win over South Dakota, an 86-75 loss to St. John’s and an 82-72 win over Loyola, which was picked fifth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference preseason coaches’ poll.
Wittman, a junior, is the son of Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Randy Wittman, who helped Indiana win the 1981 national championship.
Ryan Wittman has been rated one of the top three-point shooters in the country, after making 43.1 percent as a freshman and 45.9 percent last year, but he’s a little off so far against the new 20-foot, nine-inch arc, making eight of 22 (36.4).
Geoff Reeves has made nine of 20 (45.0) in three games.
Siena had six different players make a three in the season-opening 82-52 rout of Boise State on Monday, and senior Josh Duell, a good three-point shooter, wasn’t one of them.
Duell missed much of the preseason with an Achilles’ tendon injury, and played just three minutes in the first half against Boise State.
McCaffery said he expects to gradually get Duell more minutes, now that he can get on the court again.
“He’s full go, he’s just got to get in a little better shape,” McCaffery said on Tuesday. “I’ve been impressed with what he’s been able to do the last two days. I think that bodes well for him. He’s worked hard to get himself healthy again.”
McCaffery didn’t see much to fault in the Boise State game, other than some occasional bouts of impatience against the zone defense and some turnovers on outlet passes, “but I’m sort of going to live with that, because we’re going to set the tone, and just keep pushing it,” he said.
Siena’s starters ran the Broncos off the floor, and the bench was able to sustain the pressure on defense, which led to runouts.
“We’re going to keep playing that way,” McCaffery said. “The only thing you can run into sometimes is with the rotation situation, with a great three-point shooting team, you’ve got to be careful. They did get 17 threes up, only made two, but a lot of those were contested.
“When you start trapping at halfcourt like we were last night [Monday], an extra pass or two to the open guy, he has a clean look at it, makes a few, that changes things a bit. But they didn’t really get any real, real clean looks.”
On offense, Siena shared the ball beautifully, leading to just two players in double figures, despite 82 points.
As long as the Saints keep doing that, McCaffery said he’ll let the players figure things out for themselves on the floor.
“It’s the epitome of ‘Coach is letting us play.’ ” he said. “I rely on them to make decisions, when to trap, when to run out, when to slow it down. I might stand up and call a set because they’re going to go maybe a little too fast, but I just let them play [Monday] night, I really did. I didn’t give them too much structure at all. We gave them a defensive game plan that we thought would work, some things they like to do, let’s take that away, but other than that, they just played basketball and shared the ball.”
After the Cornell game, Siena will be on the road for over a week when it leaves for Orlando, Fla., for the Old Spice Classic on Tuesday.
After playing their third Old Spice game on Sunday, Nov. 30, the Saints will fly directly to Baltimore for their MAAC opener at Loyola on Dec. 3.