JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- You look around the Cornell locker room and wonder how in the heck this group could win an NCAA tournament game.
Hell, they look like they might have a hard time getting next at the YMCA.
On one side, there's the 7-foot center who looks bean-pole skinny now, but insists he is 50 pounds heavier than when he joined the team as a transfer.
In another area of the room, we have the bow-legged guard from Birmingham, Ala., who wanted to play at Alabama but could only get a shot at Division I basketball after sending a tape to the Cornell's coaches and begging for a chance.
And then there's the sharp-shooting son of a former NBA player and coach who couldn't get a sniff from Minnesota, his home-state school, even though his father was the coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves at the time.
So it goes with this team of misfit players, who somehow have found a way to make it all work.
The 12th-seeded Big Red upset fifth-seeded Temple 78-65 in an East Regional game Friday, the first NCAA tournament victory for Cornell. In the process they sent a loud message: They might be from the Ivy League, but these kids are plenty tough and plenty good. If Cornell played Temple 10 times, the Big Red would beat them eight times.
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The seeds might say upset, but the better team won. Don't make the mistake of letting the name on the jersey fool you, like it has other teams in the past. This isn't just a group of brainy kids playing some hoops until they get that cushy job running a hedge fund somewhere.
They can play.
"I think a lot of teams look at us like that [brainy, not tough]," 7-foot center Jeff Foote said. "The Ivy League has a stigma that they're not good basketball players. If people sleep on us, we're going to beat them. Now I feel like a lot of us can play anywhere in the country."
This victory was no accident. And it won't be a shock if they win their next game, or even one after that.
Cornell jumped to a 37-29 halftime lead, shot lights out to open the second half to extend the lead to 15 with 10:47 left, and then cruised to an easy victory. The Big Red shot 56.3 percent from the field, including 9 for 23 from behind the 3-point line.
Ryan Wittman, the son of former NBA player and coach Randy Wittman, had 20 points, shooting 4 of 6 from 3-point land. Louis Dale, the import from Birmingham, had 21 points, hitting three beyond the arc. And Foote had 16 points and seven rebounds.
Cornell is now 28-4 after going 13-1 in the Ivy League. But it's the nonconference schedule that prepared them for this tournament. They lost a close game to Kansas on the road, which gave them some national attention. They also lost to Syracuse, which means they have two losses to No. 1 seeds in this tournament.
"We're just confident in ourselves," Foote said.
|Ryan Wittman had bigger dreams, but settles for leading Cornell to its first NCAA tournament win. (AP)|
They also had a bet Thursday that whoever was asked the first question on the podium would give a wiseass response. So Foote did, which had them laughing, and the media scratching their heads.
"We have a lot of fun," Dale said. "It shows on the court. We all share the ball and nobody is selfish."
It helps that they all live together in a 14-bedroom house, which the newspaper ad called the Big Brown Ugly House, near campus. Yes, a 14-bedroom house that enables each of the players to have his own room. They call it the Dog Pound, named after their intramural softball team. That team finished second last year in part because they played without cleats, according to Foote.
"All of us are best friends," Foote said. "These guys are my best friends. I wouldn't want to live with anybody else. It makes us much closer."
They also all seem to play with a chip on their shoulders. Maybe it's from being told they can't.
"I think that's why we're such a great team," Foote said. "Louis didn't get recruited by Alabama. Ryan was told he could walk on at Minnesota and now look at him. And myself. It kind of put that extra fire in us."
There had to be a secret. They are smart and play smart, yes. And they have four seniors starting. But seeing them in the locker room is to see a group you would have expected to see at some high school somewhere, and now they are into the Round of 32.
Ivy League players aren't tough?
Don't say that to this group of ragamuffins.