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March 22, 2010
Through the Roof
Cornell's Ridiculous Offense

by John Gasaway

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The Sweet 16 is now set, with no fewer than 11 different conferences represented in that select group this year. Meaning the whole conference boasting thing can take a break this week. Maybe by the time we get to the Final Four, one league will have separated itself from the pack. Alas, that moment has not yet arrived. True, the Big Ten does stand alone with three survivors making it through to the second weekend (Ohio State, Michigan State, and Purdue). But the fact that two of those teams made it via buzzer-beaters (the Spartans and the Boilermakers) will, I trust, prevent any undue talking of the trash.

That being said, there is one league that could be excused for being just a little boastful. If I had to pick the conference that has impressed me the most so far in the tournament, I could do it in a heartbeat:

Ivy League. And it's not even close....

(12) Cornell 87, (4) Wisconsin 69 [60 possessions]
Let's talk about Cornell's defense. No, I'm serious, I think looking at Steve Donahue's defense will help us understand just how incredible this team's performance in Jacksonville really was.

Now then, the Big Red's defense in the tournament has in theory been terrible, allowing Temple and Wisconsin to score a combined 1.13 points per possession. Cornell's tournament opponents haven't turned the ball over and have shot lights-out from the field, making an unheard of 64 percent of their twos.

And, of course, none of that has mattered one bit. The opponents who are taking such good care of the ball and scoring all those points and making all those twos are doing all of the above while trailing Cornell by 20. That is how amazing the Big Red's offense has been.

College basketball's a game played for the most part within shouting distance of the point-per-possession mark. Your most dominant teams will customarily score more than a point per trip while allowing a little bit less than a point on each possession. But what Cornell has done is simply to move the entire game to a different spot entirely, one that's really fun to watch. The Big Red give up many more points than a successful team can or should, but when you score (are you sitting down?) 1.45 points per trip against a Bo Ryan defense, you win, period. No one can keep up with that. Louis Dale and Ryan Wittman scored a combined 50 points on 20-of-32 shooting.

And for those of you out there who're thinking "Oh what a cute mid-major, they'll go away when their shooting cools off," keep one more thing in mind. Cornell gets offensive rebounds. This weekend they hauled down 42 percent of their own misses against two outstanding defensive rebounding teams, both of whom are superior to Kentucky in this one respect. Just saying.

(2) West Virginia 68, (10) Missouri 59 [60]
Missouri's a poor defensive rebounding team that forces a lot of turnovers, and they entered this game knowing that West Virginia's an outstanding offensive rebounding team that never commits turnovers. And yet the Tigers hung with the Mountaineers the whole way, and indeed were down just five with two minutes left. It was a valiant effort by an underdog, one that prevented West Virginia from making much of anything from the field. In the end, however, 33 free throw attempts (also known as a Big 12 hello) enabled the Mountaineers to withstand the challenge from the Tigers. Da'Sean Butler led all scorers with 28 points, 12 of which came at the line.

(5) Michigan St. 85, (4) Maryland 83 [71]
On Friday I offered my 12-point program to make an unbelievably great sport even better, so I was pretty pleased yesterday when the Spartans and Terrapins offered riveting testimony in support of point number 3: Reduce the number of timeouts. With fewer timeouts we would likely see more games ending like this one did, with three consecutive scores in the final 25 seconds of game clock, and nary a single timeout to be seen. It was bliss. (Tom Izzo actually had a timeout left but didn't use it. Note to self: Look at play-by-play data to see if teams actually do better in these situations without a timeout.) First Draymond Green sank a 19-footer to put Michigan State up by one with 20 seconds remaining. Then Greivis Vasquez sank a runner with 6.6 seconds left to put Maryland back on top by one. But it was all mere stage-setting for Korie Lucious' game-winning three as time expired. What a thrilling sequence. The only thing marring the victory for the Spartans was the news that Kalin Lucas has likely suffered a torn Achilles tendon.

(2) Ohio St. 75, (10) Georgia Tech 66 [74]
He's my choice for national player of the year, so I get to say stuff like this: Evan Turner turns the ball over a ton. Against Georgia Tech he committed nine turnovers, while his hot-shooting team scored 1.33 points per "effective" (TO-less) possession. Meaning yesterday Turner's giveaways cost the Buckeyes roughly 12 points. (Of course Georgia Tech was meanwhile committing even more turnovers than OSU.) Not that zero turnovers from someone in Turner's position is likely or even reasonable, of course. Just something to think about and keep an eye on.

(4) Purdue 63, (5) Texas A&M 61 (OT) [73]
Chris Kramer hit the game-winner from the lane with 4.2 seconds left in overtime. The play was preceded by a timeout, so when I saw it in real time I thought Matt Painter was being brilliant and confounding expectations. Then I read that Kramer had simply ignored what Painter had called and drove into the lane on his own initiative. Anyway, it worked. This was just the kind of defensive struggle you would have expected between these two teams, but I do give the Boilermakers a world of credit for following up on possibly the single ugliest half of basketball I've ever seen in my life (their first half against Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament) with two NCAA tournament wins.

(1) Duke 68, (8) Cal 53 [58]
You don't often see a one-seed slow a game down to under 60 possessions, but that's exactly what Mike Krzyzewski did when confronted with Cal, and it worked beautifully. So beautifully that the Blue Devils recorded a comfortable win in a game where they made just 3-of-17 threes. Nolan Smith led all scorers with 20 points on 18 shots. And Brian Zoubek continues to find ways to not be called for fouls. In this instance he stayed on the floor for 23 minutes and recorded six offensive boards. Remember all that talk in the preseason about this Duke team being different because they're bigger? It's starting to look accurate. The Cal offense is hardly chopped liver, and they were held to 53 points in a 58-possession game.

(6) Xavier 71, (3) Pitt 68 [65]
DeJuan Blair's long gone, but his example is not forgotten. On a day when Pitt was being outshot from the field, Jamie Dixon's team stayed in this game solely because of 15 offensive rebounds. (Five of which came from Brad Wanamaker, of all people.) One difference from last year, however, is that the Panthers felt like an underdog to me in this game. Their last lead was at 18-17 and they never could quite catch Xavier. For their part the Musketeers got 27 points on 15 shots from Jordan Crawford, as they (like Michigan State) reached their third consecutive Sweet 16.

(1) Syracuse 87, (8) Gonzaga 65 [70]
Syracuse was Cornell-like, hitting 12-of-25 threes and putting this game away with a 29-12 run to open the second half. This despite the absence of Arinze Onuaku (still sidelined by the knee injury he suffered in the Big East tournament) and despite foul trouble for Rick Jackson. Gonzaga actually showed flashes in the first half that they could do business against this zone, but it quickly became a moot point as Mark Few's team was buried alive by the Orangemen's threes. Give the credit there to Wes Johnson (31 points) and Andy Rautins (24).

John has never been referred to as Cornell-like on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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