ANAHEIM, Calif. - If Thursday’s matchup between Cornell and Stanford were decided in the classroom, the third-seeded Cardinal might be in trouble.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s probably going to be them,” Stanford’s Taj Finger said Wednesday, giving the academic nod to the Big Red. “We have a ton of smart guys on the team, but I think we’re a little bit more geared to basketball.”
Brawn instead of book smarts likely will decide the first-round South Regional game between two schools with players who truly define the student-athlete moniker.
“I guess it’s just another feather in both our hats and Cornell’s that we’re able to be successful in basketball and be able to go to such successful academic schools,” Stanford guard Mitch Johnson said.
No basket weaving classes in Palo Alto or Ithaca. Players on both teams major in subjects such as human biology, policy analysis and management, applied economics and management, and engineering.
Brook Lopez, one of Stanford’s 7-foot twin towers, wants to major in creative writing.
“I want to go into investment banking,” said Cornell guard Louis Dale, Ivy League player of the year. “Policy analysis and management is sort of like a business major with a little side of policy.”
As a private Ivy League school, Cornell doesn’t offer athletic scholarships to reduce tuition that soon will top $60,000 a year. Athletes are considered students first and are awarded financial aid based on economic need. Stanford is private, too, but gives athletic scholarships to reduce costs of more than $45,000 a year.
Some of Cornell’s players laughed about playing in the so-called “Battle of the Nerds.”
“I’ve heard that,” guard Adam Gore said. “We’re not really focused on how hard Stanford’s classes are or how they’re doing. We’re focusing on the athletic side of it. They’re a very good team. It just so happens to be they’re a pretty good institution as well.”
The schools located on opposite sides of the country played three of the same opponents this season — Harvard, Siena and Yale. Stanford routed Harvard 111-56, lost at Siena and beat Yale by 11. Cornell went 5-0 against those three teams.
The Cardinal (26-7) have lost three of their last five and are seeking their first NCAA tourney victory since 2004. They are coming off the rugged Pac-10 tournament, and a loss to top-seeded UCLA in the title game.
“We’re probably more excited to be out of an extremely tough Pac-10 season and the tournament. We’re looking forward to playing somebody else,” coach Trent Johnson said.
The Ivy League is the only conference that doesn’t play a postseason tourney, so the 14th-seeded Big Red (22-5) have been idle since March 8.
The league is no stranger to the NCAA tournament, although its automatic bid usually has gone to Princeton or Pennsylvania. Office pool fanatics surely remember 13th-seeded Princeton and its backdoor scoring upsetting fourth-seeded UCLA in the first round in 1996.
“You really got to recruit kids that fit the mold of the Ivy League and you’re not going to be able to do that pretty quickly,” said Cornell coach Steve Donahue, previously a Penn assistant for 10 years. “There’s been way more aggressive recruiting, commitment to basketball at the other six schools. Now I think you’ll see great parity in our league.”
But Cornell never has won a first-round game in three previous tries. And it was a Pac-10 team that sent the Big Red packing in their last appearance, with top-seeded Arizona winning 90-50 in 1988.
Cornell is 3-58 against Top 25 teams, including losing its last 13 against such teams. The Big Red briefly were ahead in the first half of a January game at then-No. 9 Duke before losing 81-67.
“I looked in the locker room and I didn’t sense an excitement or nervousness,” Donahue recalled. “Then they go out and play and execute and do all those things that you need to. We had every chance to win the game.”
So he doesn’t expect his underclassman-dominated team to fall into the “we’re-happy-to-be-here” trap despite Cornell’s status as a 14½-point underdog.
“It’s just a wonderful opportunity for us,” Dale said. “We have nothing to lose. That’s why it’s ‘March Madness.’ Anything can happen and so we’ll see.”
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