SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) - Cornell has made itself the early
tournament darlings of March. The Big Red win with seniors, goof
off at news conferences, and have embraced every second of the
sudden national spotlight.
Kentucky plays richly talented teams in the SEC, is on national
television as often as "30 Rock," and counts the round of 16 as
another step toward the national championship and not a reason to
Kentucky coach John Calipari has a roster dotted with potential
one-and-done players. Cornell (29-4) might be a one-year wonder.
There is no more fascinating round of 16 matchup than top-seeded
Kentucky (34-2) trying to end 12th-seeded Cornell's NCAA tournament
run on Thursday night in the East Regional semifinal. Or is it the
other way around?
"I'm enough of a fan to understand why this is so intriguing to
everybody," Cornell coach Steve Donahue said Wednesday. "I get
that. I don't know if our guys really understand it. They believe
that they're a good enough basketball team, without all the other
things that go along with it, to play with anybody in the
The Big Red have already proven they can play - and soundly beat
- any team around. Just ask NCAA tournament first- and second-round
victims Temple and Wisconsin.
The Wildcats are a different animal.
Calipari recruits the type of players who are more likely to
land in the NBA than work toward an MBA. Derrick Rose and Tyreke
Evans both left Memphis after their freshman seasons under
Calipari. He's got John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and maybe Eric
Bledsoe who could bolt for the NBA after one season once Kentucky's
NCAA tournament run is finished.
Top high school recruits wait for Kentucky to knock at their
doors for a recruiting visit. That makes expectations soar higher
than unkempt Kentucky bluegrass.
Calipari has ruled the state this season with a thought in the
back of his mind: A 20-win season and a trip to the Sweet 16 might
not be enough to satisfy Big Blue.
Not even after a year's absence from the NCAA tournament and the
ugly split with Billy Gillispie.
"Whether you're a coach or a player, if you're afraid, if
you're not sure, it's not a good place to go," Calipari said. "If
you want to do something, and be at the highest level ... it's a
heck of a place to be."
Kentucky dominated East Tennessee State and Wake Forest in the
first two rounds, making a pair of tournament teams look like the
ones the Wildcats schedule in November to pad their win total
before the SEC starts.
The Wildcats insist they don't need the motivation of watching
heavyweights like Kansas, Georgetown and Villanova go down early to
a bunch of teams not known much outside their own states.
"The teams that lost, the other team that beat them did a great
job of running their offense," Wall said. "They played the pace
they wanted to play in. We have to try to speed Cornell up and play
to a fast pace, not let them set up because they're a great team at
Cornell has already had a great season by any measure of success
at the Ivy League school. The Big Red had a blast at their open
practice Wednesday at the Carrier Dome.
They ran a desperation halfcourt shot drill that got a rise out
of a few hundred fans when former Wildcat Mark Coury and Pete
Reynolds nailed 'em back-to-back.
Ryan Wittman and Jeff Foote appeared to have a running inside
joke going their entire time at the news conference podium. Foote
laughed so hard for no obvious reason he turned red-faced and
pulled his jersey over his face. Wittman mimed some of the answers
teammate Louis Dale gave to the press.
"We're a fun group of guys," Foote said. "We can't take
anything too seriously. I think when we play our best, we're very
loose and very comfortable with each other."
Cornell's Ithaca, N.Y., campus is only about 55 miles away from
the Carrier Dome. The Big Red hope their fans turn out in full
force and the neutral ones - even Syracuse diehards - give them a
20,000-plus homecourt edge.
"I expect it to be very pro-Cornell," Donahue said.
The Big Red will take any advantage they can get. The Wildcats
boast three freshmen, one sophomore and one junior in their
starting lineup. They're practically NCAA tournament rookies
compared to Cornell seniors like Foote, Dale and Wittman who have
helped lead the Big Red to a school-first three straight NCAA
March Madness experience might be the only edge for Cornell.
Then again, with a lineup like Kentucky's, does it really
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)