The passage of time is what usually grants college basketball its mystique and aura; witness memory fades and history takes over. Players become larger than life, coaches change into infallible titans of the mind, and single contests transcend the game itself. The words, and the numbers, never fit the mental picture: Coach Wooden's UCLA teams won 125 games in a row and 25 National Championships, right? And wasn't Wilt eight feet tall? At least?
Every spring, small-college teams walk out from foggy shadows to X-out known basketball quantities, but there's less and less mystery in that these days. Every move of each of the 347 Division I teams is meticulously recorded and tracked now, and there is so much televised basketball -- internet pixelvision too -- that we can almost always see these Davids ahead of time, in full color. (I've even heard that there are those who drive around the country chasing after mid-major teams. What's that about?) Butler and Xavier have made plenty of national TV appearances, and Northern Iowa and Saint Mary's were nationally ranked during the season.
So was Cornell, of course, but that was largely due to word-of-mouth and selective understanding. There were two consecutive Ivy championships, but the Big Red was still just as nationally anonymous as any quickly-disposed low seed, mostly due to the Ivy League's inability to get its games on television. Then, in early January, the Big Red came within two possessions of defeating Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse, startled the establishment, then promptly disappeared back into the shadows. Three weeks later, they entered the poll on the strength of a line score. Only a few thousand people actually saw Cornell destroy Harvard 86-50 on Jan. 30. I was at another Ivy League game that night, and the showdown wasn't exactly available on closed circuit. All of us on press row had to follow along on the internet ticker, or with headphones, tuned into the live streaming audio.
Save for a few selectbackdoor clips, nearly all of Ivy League basketball history is this strange and enigmatic. Most of what my generation knows about the great Penn teams of the Seventies, we read in books or off the Palestra walls. Nearly all of the other tales will remain hidden forever, because they aren't for our consumption anyway -- they were pure student-athlete stories, with personal development and perspective far more important than wins or losses. But Cornell 2009-10, until a week ago, was a mystery in plain sight.
In a conference run by Penn and Princeton since the 1960's, Cornell was the worst of the other six before its rise to the top. From 1998-2003, the Big Red won 42 games over five years. No Ivy team won fewer during that stretch. Then, Steve Donahue started bringing talent to Ithaca -- players like Ka'Ron Barnes, who led the league in scoring on the nine-win ballclub of 2002-03. He took risks, like signing big Ryan Rourke for two years (a juco transfer! In the Ivy!) and lured a top 200 prep prospect, guard Khaliq Grant.
The first hint of what was to come was 2004-05, when the Big Red peeked above .500 in the Ancient Eight (8-6) for the first time in over a decade. That year, they swept Princeton in what was the first year of the Tigers' slide into Ivy mediocrity. But adversity struck, and Cornell wouldn't join Penn at the top of the league... not yet.
Halfway through the 2005-06 season, Gant, then a sophomore, ran into a teammate during a rebounding drill in practice. The impact dislocated two of his vertebrae, paralyzing him. Doctors said he'd never walk again, but he recovered after months of physical therapy. Not enough to play basketball, though. Other key members of the team had medical issues as well -- there was point guard Graham Dow's sports hernia and the pin in big man Jason Hartford's wrist.
Out of all this adversity, the team that is now wreaking havoc on the NCAA Tournament emerged. In 2006-07, a quick little point guard Louis Dale arrived from down south. Mid-size forward Ryan Wittman fell to Cornell from an NBA family in Minnesota; he was generally overlooked because a thigh bruise kept his numbers down as a high school senior, and those rose quickly when he recovered. But there are plenty of teams with solid double-digit scoring combos. Fate dealt Cornell the big man that made this year's Big Red team the best Ivy representative in 30 years.
Wanda Foote was a nurse working at the hospital where Khaliq Gant was recovering from his career-ending injury. All the players would come over to see how their fallen teammate was doing, and the coaches made frequent visits too. She was touched. She also happened to let slip that she had a son who played basketball, a walk-on freshman at Saint Bonaventure. Oh yeah, and he was 7 feet tall!
Jeff Foote transferred in, and was a part-time player as he began to put on the extra 55 pounds that has made him such an inside force. But in Foote's first year, Wittman, Dale (who finished in the Ivy's top 10 in six different statistical categories) and guard Adam Gore led the team to the 2008 Ivy title and a breakup of the Penn-Princeton axis. When Gore tore an ACL in practice, placing doubt on Cornell's repeat dreams, the big guy emerged as the third of the new Big Three. Foote's 11.8 ppg and 7.2 rpg were the perfect complement to Wittman and Dale's high-colume scoring (the trio averaged 43 ppg on the way to the second consecutive title). There were scoring threats up and down the size chart, and they would all be seniors, at the same time, in 2009-10.
And then, in January, this happened at Allen Fieldhouse.
When they reemerged from the radio-only world in March, they didn't exit meekly and quickly, like they did in 2008 and 2009 to Stanford and Missouri, respectively. With an offense so explosive and efficient that it averaged nearly a point and a half per possession, Cornell laid down a wide swath of total basketball destruction. First came Temple.
And then, the Big Red did Wisconsin better than Wisconsin could ever do Wisconsin.
With due respect to the other four, there is no other team remaining in the NCAA Tournament with as much magic and mystery as Cornell. It's a team assembled out of circumstance, coincidence and curious kismet. And it might take another 30 years before we see another Ivy squad like it.