Cornell Press Conference Quotes - 2010 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16
March 24, 2010
THE MODERATOR: OK, Coach, congratulations on being here. Can we ask you to give an opening statement?
COACH STEVE DONAHUE: Thank you. Obviously we're extremely excited, not only to be in the Sweet 16, but to be in Syracuse, New York, is exactly where we would love to be. Obviously I'm very pleased with what we've done so far in the Tournament. And I sense that the group isn't done. That's what we're going to try to do, is just keep advancing.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you. Questions for Coach?
Q. Do you expect this to be a big home crowd for you, the Syracuse faithful who, you know, will watch their game first, obviously, will then come and sort of cheer you on and hope that the semi local team does well?
COACH STEVE DONAHUE: You know, I sense from being in this area for the ten years that I have had, I always thought there was a great relationship between our program and the fans of Syracuse and vice versa. There's a lot of Syracuse fans in Ithaca, New York. And I think our relationship with the program, Jim (Boeheim) and I being friendly, and I sense that they appreciate this team. I expect it to be very pro Cornell. I would hope so, anyway.
Q. When did you get a sense that this could be a special group?
COACH STEVE DONAHUE: I think if you look at us over the last three years, you saw it coming. When this group were freshmen, we would go to Northwestern, and at that time I don't know if we had a winning season yet. We beat Northwestern at Northwestern starting two freshmen, obviously Louis and Ryan. Ryan gets 18 points. And I just had that feeling that I used to when I was at Penn when we had really good teams when their players were young. I sensed that this group is going to be pretty good. You added Foote and then I thought there was a couple of other big games in my mind that made us one was at Duke when these guys were sophomores. I'm watching tape of Duke and they're beating teams at our level by 35 and 40. We walk in there and we go toe to toe with them. And we lose a game down the stretch. But I felt great about our team, all those kids are actually sophomores for the most part.
Obviously the last piece was the Kansas experience. Playing in that environment, I wasn't sure again. I just watched tape of them beat Temple by 35, not knowing exactly where we're at. I guess I'm like everybody else. Now I'm believing during that game that this team is very good. As a coach, you're always a little hesitant to believe in your group. But they really had to prove it to you. I thought that experience really did even though we lost, in some ways I was OK with the loss. I want to know how we would have reacted if we won that game? Because we still had to win our league to get into the NCAA Tournament. Even though we beat Kansas at Kansas, we would have still had to win our league. And in my mind, I was more concerned with how we would play in the league, and then if we got the opportunity to go to the NCAA Tournament, I think that Kansas experience really would help us.
Q. Coach, you're going to be playing a team with all sorts of McDonald's All Americans. Can you describe your recruiting experience and how you were able to find guys this good and get them to a school with no scholarships?
COACH STEVE DONAHUE: I guess I'm fortunate because I've been doing it for 20 years now. This is what I've been doing in recruiting. I think it's made me a much better recruiter in that sense. I don't think it's that it's not as drastically different as you think. What we probably try to do is try to find kids that aren't necessarily great as 18 year olders, but have a little vision of what that young man will be when he's 21 or 22. Mostly, it's strength, it's size, it's quickness, that if can you anticipate someone like a Ryan Wittman growing three inches and putting on 25, 30 pounds, because that's what he did, he would be a very good basketball player. Obviously the same thing for Jeff Foote.
The other part is we try to get kids that people overlook, and try to do it as hard as we can. These are easy things but these take hours and hours and hours of really trying to find guys that people overlook. And I think Louis Dale is a great example of that. For whatever reason, maybe size, maybe he went to a small school, maybe he's such a nice kid maybe they don't think he can compete, which is bull, but that's how you end up with kids like him.
Q. I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about the mood on campus between the success you're having and other sports programs are having, hockey teams and things like that, and how that kind of contrasts with some of the recent tragedies that have gone on at the school as well.
COACH STEVE DONAHUE: It's obviously a very difficult time on our campus. I would be speaking out of turn if I knew exactly how basketball is affecting students. What I would hope is that all of us and I give our administration and the president has been tremendous in terms of trying to unite our campus. I think you're seeing that with our guys and with other students on campus in general. And now they have a chance to rally around our basketball program. I would hope they'd feel better about their situation, feel better about Cornell. And obviously deep grief, there's obviously tragic situations where families are going through hard. Our condolences are absolutely with them. I hope that they feel better about everything that's going on on our campus and somehow will get through this. That situation, unfortunately, exists in every campus in America. And as a parent, that is always your concern in general about your children's happiness. To see it happen on your own campus is extremely difficult.
These guys are affected in a way as well. But as I said, I hope basketball makes it better that we're doing this, and people can really unite and have fun about being a college student again.
Q. A little bit of a lighter note, can you step back, even though you're so immersed in this and appreciate this match up, just the contrasts between the schools and the styles and everything that goes with it?
COACH STEVE DONAHUE: I can. I'm enough of a fan of college basketball to understand why this is so intriguing to everybody. 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 country. But obviously when you have three or four first round NBA picks and you're an Ivy League school with obviously different goals professionally afterwards, there's a little different feeling with your teammates how you're going to approach this game.
I think it's fun for fans. I think it's great that people are intrigued by the match up. We're going to do what we do, and John (Calipari) is going to have his kids do what they do on the basketball court. I think both teams play great basketball. I think the styles are obviously extremely different. But I think they're obviously a very talented and solid basketball team. Not just talented, they are solid. They can have all those athletes they want, but if they didn't play the game the right way, they wouldn't be where they're at right now. And I hope we play the game the right way. And obviously we're going to try to do that and try to be successful against their style.
Q. Would you be kind enough just to go through the recruitment and the transfer of Mark (Coury) and initially when somebody told you that a kid from Kentucky might be coming to Cornell, what your immediate reaction was?
COACH STEVE DONAHUE: He's referring to Mark Coury, who obviously transferred from Kentucky. It's a short story in all honesty. We get a call from our admissions liaison between athletics and admissions at Cornell, which is a big position. We deal with this guy all the time.
He calls me up and says, I have a father on the phone that says his son starts at Kentucky at center. He wants to transfer over to Cornell. So I immediately think it's one of your friends pulling a prank on you or something like that and you're going to check it. And I still thought I was Kentucky State or some other Kentucky. Sure enough it's Mark. He e mails me his page off the Web site.
Once you get to know Mark Coury, you understand a lot more about the situation. He was a tremendous high school student, a great college student, and he's a 4.0 student at Cornell. I think with all the turmoil and the different things that went on in the program, changing coaches, I think he saw an opportunity where he could go play and get a great education at the same time, and maybe more substantial role on the basketball program at the same time.
I think it probably came into their minds, the parents' minds anyway, maybe Mark, we played in Anaheim right after that they did two years ago in the NCAA Tournament. And just maybe I think his father said that, we just put that thought in our minds just then. We saw what a great program, obviously what a great academic school. Wouldn't that be a great situation.
Q. Can you talk about how important a quick start will be against Kentucky tomorrow? You have the quick start against Wisconsin, and in a game like this where you're playing a top seed, is it more important?
COACH STEVE DONAHUE: I do think it is. I think getting off to a good start is great for ourteam in general. We always reach back to the Penn game where we got off to a really terrible flat start, especially defensively. I just didn't think we came out aggressive, be aggressive. For us to win this game we need to be the team making plays. That may sound strange, even if we make mistakes and they get something in transition. But I know my team. If we're making plays and we're attacking the rim and we're making stuff happen on both ends of the floor, that's when we play well. All the other things you see are based on that. If we come out and we're saying we're going to hold the ball because they're really athletic and they get up and down, we're not going to play well. We have to be the aggressor.
Q. Can you talk about what Khaliq Gant meant to your program over the past three years. Have you ever thought about if what happened to him didn't happen, you wouldn't have your seven footer and how he's dealt with that as well?
COACH STEVE DONAHUE: That's a remarkable situation. I'm sure most of you know Khaliq Gant was a young man who basically severely fractured his neck and was paralyzed for approximately four months from the neck down during an incident during practice. Long story short, that led to us meeting Jeff Foote's mother as an intensive care nurse. She was so impressed with our guys that she suggested her son look at Cornell. Since that day that it happened, our record is ridiculous. Obviously up until that point it was pretty poor.
Two things I really like about it is I think Jeff Foote obviously has made a great transition to Cornell. Helped us greatly, but helped himself, too. This is what he wanted. The other thing is I think Khaliq Gant would never regret anything that happened. He's put life in a different perspective in his mind. He's completely healthy. Enough to live a normal life. Has a great job in New York, doing great things, and he misses basketball but doesn't necessarily think of that whole incident as a bad thing. I think that's great. I think he looks at life so much differently. And I coach differently. That taught me a great deal. Taught me there's lot of other things to worry about than winning or losing basketball games. I believe I'm a better coach because of that. Obviously the situation in general for our basketball program has been incredible.
Q. Could you talk about the senior leadership for this team and not just the three guys up there in Dale, Foote and Wittman, but the rest of the seniors as well in terms of what it has meant in getting you to where you are today?
COACH STEVE DONAHUE: The three guys obviously do a lot on the floor. I agree with you, we have five other guys. There's a couple of things that are incredible about this group. The one Jon Jaques stepping into the starting lineup after never playing a substantial minute for three years. Not only does he not start those three years, he doesn't start until Thanksgiving of this year. I think he's made us substantially better basketball team. I'm convinced we would not be here if we don't make that move. But to me more impressive to that is Alex Tyler. He takes his starting role. And Alex Tyler is a senior who started for three years. He's accepted that role. Obviously hurt personally because he's not playing, but he's made our team so much better by his willingness to do that. I'm pretty sure if that situation happens in a lot of other college basketball programs, that implodes. Your team just him, everything, to do that. Alex is a captain, he's a leader on and off the court. Him accepting that the way he does, it's incredible and it's made us a great team.
So I appreciate that Jon has done that. I'm probably way more appreciative of Alex and his understanding of the situation.
Q. I apologize if you were asked this yesterday: Obviously you're focusing on this team and this tournament. Your name has been linked with some other jobs in the New York area. Can you just talk about how you kind of balance that? And is it good that this run makes you more attractive to other schools? Or are you not thinking about that?
COACH STEVE DONAHUE: You know what, I try to answer this as honestly as I can. Obviously I get calls about different things. What goes through my mind is I shouldn't be talking about this. That's the honest truth. Because it's unfair for this group. Then it's really easy. I just say there will be a time when I have to deal with certain things with my personal career.
But I love this team. That would be so unfair. It's the easiest thing to block that out in my mind. I'm trying to and I am, I'm enjoying this I hope as much as the guys are. I may never no matter what I do in coaching. Two things: I'm going to try to get a group like this again, that they're so good off the court. They do everything I could possibly ask, students. And then they can compete nationally. That may never happen to me again in my career.
Obviously getting to the Sweet 16, I can go a lot of places. There's a lot of coaches that have never been in this spot before. I'm going to try and enjoy it. I'm going to try to work my tail off to get us to somehow compete with Kentucky and try to win the game.
THE MODERATOR: Coach, thank you very much for your time. Good luck tomorrow.
We'll take questions for the student athletes.
Q. Jeff and Ryan, you guys are by far the more experienced team in this match up. You're seniors, you have tons of seniors; they don't have hardly any upperclassmen in their regular rotation. Does that make a difference? Is that an edge for you guys? Is it that much of a difference?
RYAN WITTMAN: I mean, they've already played two games in the Tournament. As far as that goes, they know what to expect. They've played in big games throughout the year. So I don't think it's not like they're going to back down from the spotlight or anything.
So I don't think the experience with their guys and what to expect with the game and everything is going to affect much. Maybe with regards to execution down the stretch, if the game is close, I don't know it's hard to say.
JEFF FOOTE: Yeah, I would probably say the same thing. If anything, we might be the more inexperienced team. They're used to playing games on national TV, big time spotlight. John Wall has been the No. 1 overall pick in a lot of people's minds for a while now. And this is our first Sweet 16 ever, so this is our first time being this deep in the tournament, too. So I don't think there's a lot of experience that's going to play a big factor.
Q. For Ryan, I guess, the other two can answer it as well: I was wondering if you could talk about how is the mood on campus with your success and some of other sports teams are having success as well? And contrast that with some of the recent tragedies of that happened on campus as well.
RYAN WITTMAN: Yeah, it's kind of been a weird feeling with the tragedies that have been going on on campus. I think what we're trying to do is give people something else to think of. Give them something to take their minds off of that. We've been seeing and feeling a lot of support from our students, from the locals around our community. It's kind of a difficult situation. We're not trying to make people forget about it. Just allow them to think about something else for a little while.
Q. For Louis: We heard your line last week about the Friday Night Lights line. What do you expect to do after college? And I know there is a potential basketball future. But how do you see your future after this? And one other thing, how do you feel the Kansas experience will help you tomorrow night?
LOUIS DALE: Well, as far as after college, I'm hoping to play basketball, pursue a career in professional basketball. I love this game, and so I want to keep playing it for as long as I can.
As far as the Kansas game, I think, you know, just playing in the environment that, you know, an electric environment, as far as media attention and fan support and I think playing that caliber a team will also help. I think, you know, our experience coming down the stretch in games will help as well. You know, hopefully we can do some good things out there.
JEFF FOOTE: I would like to keep playing as well. I think like Louis said the Kansas game was a nice test for us early in the season. I think we're a much better team than when we played Kansas. I think we've come a long way. We're a much more improved team.
RYAN WITTMAN: I'm going to want to play basketball as well. You guys summed up the Kansas game pretty well.
Q. You guys have played here in the Carrier Dome before and with the proximity to Ithaca. How is your experience at being familiar with the Carrier Dome going to help you this weekend?RYAN WITTMAN: Obviously, we played in the Carrier Dome a couple of times before. I think the last three years we played there. So we're fairly familiar with the Dome, shooting there and everything. I don't think that will be much of a problem. Hopefully getting a lot of fans. Obviously we're pretty close to our campus. We're going to be feeding off energy from them. Our passion buckets are going to be filled to the brim tomorrow.
Q. Louis, I know you kind of talked about your recruiting experience before, but if you can just kind of go over that story of how you came to be at Cornell. I think you sent in a videotape. Do you ever think about that in comparison to a guy like John Wall, who obviously didn't have any trouble getting recruited? Do you compare yourself at all to him?LOUIS DALE: Yeah, just my experience. I wasn't recruited too heavily in high school. And so I was around November or so, I had no idea where I was going to go to school. So my mom told me to send this videotape out to a few schools. I sent it out and Cornell responded. They really recruited me hard after that. Took my visit and I enjoyed the school. I kind of fell in love with the school. It was the place for me.In regards to thinking about vice versa with John Wall, somebody being recruited heavily, you know, I didn't give it much thought. I was just happy to find a home and play Division I basketball and get going. This experience has been great so far.
Q. I guess this is for Jeff. If either of you guys have anything to add, that will be great: Everybody talks about you guys as an Ivy League team, the smart kids. Is there any kind of team joker out there? If so can you talk about any non Ivy League moments that may go on with the team?JEFF FOOTE: I think we're all kind of team jokers, as Ryan just demonstrated. You know, we just like to have a lot of fun. We're a fun group of guys. We can't take anything too seriously. I think when we play our best, we're very loose and very comfortable with each other and go out there and have fun.
Q. Guys, usually the Tournament seems to go by so quickly. But this is for all three: Have any of you had a chance to kind of sit back and reflect on all that you guys have accomplished so far this Tournament?
THE MODERATOR: Louis, do you want to go first? Go down the row.
LOUIS DALE: I haven't really had time to reflect, I think. We're just kind of focusing. We want to keep advancing and make the most of this. And maybe when it's all said and done and we're done playing college basketball, then we'll kind of reflect and look back and see our legacy that we left on Cornell and Ivy League basketball.JEFF FOOTE: I would say the same as Louis. You can't really look back. You don't really get a chance to enjoy it. As soon as you do, you kind of lose focus on the next team. A team like Kentucky, that's a very tough team. If you lose focus on them, they're going to beat you up pretty bad.
RYAN WITTMAN: Yeah, right now our focus isn't on what we accomplished. Our focus is on looking ahead to tomorrow's game. I think it's the kind of deal where, like Louis said, once we're done with college basketball, then that's the time to look back and reflect on what you've accomplished.
Q. Ryan, first for you, given where your dad played basketball, and I believe his last NCAA game was against Kentucky, have you guys had any conversations this week? And what was your feeling about Kentucky basketball growing up? And could any of the three of your just talk about what's either the funniest or coolest thing that's happened since Sunday? Think hard on that one.
RYAN WITTMAN: I have talked to my dad. Not about Kentucky or anything. He hasn't really brought that up. I just found out yesterday that that was the last team that he played, or whatever. He just talked to me about enjoying the moment, staying aggressive, just stuff like that. He hasn't really talked to me anything about his past rivalries with Kentucky. Growing up I was always an Indiana fan, obviously, Indiana and Kentucky were a big rivalry. But it's not like I'm using that as extra motivation or anything. If you're not motivated right now, you shouldn't be playing.
JEFF FOOTE: I think probably one of the funniest things was after we beat Wisconsin in the locker room there was those chests full of ice and soda, and everybody just seemed to grab a handful of ice and just whip it into the air, and it got pretty crazy in there and Coach D came in and almost slipped on the ice. Probably the funniest for me.
LOUIS DALE: Oh, man. Actually, I don't know. So sorry to disappoint, but I have no idea.
Q. Ryan, Jeff and Louis, I want you to express the feelings you have on the court. Hit a three pointer from a ridiculous spot on the floor and go the other way. Jeff, when you back a guy and make a shot. And, Louis, down low, you make shot and go high off the glass. When they didn't think it was coming, they didn't think it was going in and how that gives you energy to get down the court and play defense and keep building on the lead that you've had in these first two games.
RYAN WITTMAN: Yeah. We've been executing extremely well offensively the first two games. I don't know if it's been a matter of the past two teams not really playing a team like us earlier in the year. As far as using those types of things as motivation to play defense or something, that's something we try and pride ourselves on. There's going to be games when you're not making those shots, and you have to stay in the game by playing strong defense. We like to say to each other that our defense creates our offense. If we're getting stops, if we're creating turnovers, we're able to push the ball and get even easier looks.
JEFF FOOTE: I think Ryan said it pretty well. We feel like our defense is what we rely on. A lot of times you're going to have off days, and you have to have something to fall back on. If you're just a good offensive team, you're not going to win many games. Just because one bad night can ruin you. So I think we rely a lot on our defense. I think our defense creates our offense, for the most part.LOUIS DALE: Yeah, I agree with them. I think that we've also been shooting the ball pretty well right now as a team. And hopefully our hot streak can continue.
Q. Jeff, you put on a lot of weight and worked a lot on your game your time at Cornell. At the same time, Khaliq Gant was just trying to relearn how to walk and run and jump and things like that. Did you draw any special inspiration knowing that no matter how hard you worked, he was probably going to have to outwork you just to get to your base level?JEFF FOOTE: Khaliq is a really good friend of mine. He's been a tremendous inspiration I think not just for me, but for this whole team. He does a tremendous he's a great friend. He does a great job of motivating each and every one of us. The tragedy that happened to him, you wouldn't wish that on anybody. You draw a lot of inspiration from him working so hard just to get back to where he was. I think that really speaks to the character of Khaliq that he never gave up. Even when they told him he was never going to walk again, he just kept fighting.THE MODERATOR: That's all the time we have. Thank you for coming in. Good luck tomorrow.