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  • Nate Krackeler

Thinking Cornell Sports Part Two: Men’s Basketball

Photography by BRSN, Amanda Burkart

The Cornell Men’s Basketball team does not play the game in a traditional way. Whereas most teams focus primarily on individual possessions, looking to simply stop the other team on defense more than they are stopped at the other end, Cornell approaches the game from a different perspective. Playing in an innovative system devised by head coach Brian Earl (which could be considered a modern adaptation of older fast-paced approaches such as Mike D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less” offense), the Big Red focus on pace and efficiency, drawing their opponents into a chaotic, lightning-fast game that plays to their strengths.

Cornell players constantly look to force turnovers and attempt to get out in transition whenever possible. When they are forced to play in the half-court, the Big Red take three-pointers early and often—banking on the inherent efficiency of the three-point shot and a team full of elite shooters. It is a style of play that emphasizes ball movement and requires players to make good decisions at high speed.

Big Red athletes take pride in this style and the advantages it gives them. Guard Isaiah Gray ’24 described how the team ethos is built on teamwork and speed.

“We play really fast-paced and share the ball a lot,” said Gray. “It’s not a lot of individuals, we play to each other’s strengths and work as a whole. It’s real team basketball.”

This approach manifests itself in the statistics, as Cornell is consistently near the top of the national rankings in a variety of metrics that emphasize fast pace of play, three-point shooting, and forcing turnovers. Across the 2022 season, no Division I team attempted more three-pointers per game than the Big Red’s staggering 30.4, and only Chattanooga, who also play a rapid style of offense, made more threes per game.

In order to put up this many threes a game, the players have to be trusted to take them, and point guard Nazir Williams ’25 credits Earl with giving the team the confidence to shoot at all times.

“He instills a lot of confidence in our group, because everybody has the green light,” noted Williams. “It’s not just one or two guys who can shoot whatever shot they want; if it's a good shot, we take it.”

The Big Red were close to the top in a variety of other statistics, landing second in the nation in terms of fast break points per game with 15.93, largely as a result of focusing so heavily on going for takeaways, with their 9.7 steals per game ranking fifth in the country. This huge volume of transition layups and three-pointers landed Cornell thirteenth in the country in effective field goal percentage, an advanced stat aiming to reward teams for taking—and making—high quality shots, and ninth in the nation for scoring offense. Cornell’s sixth place rank in total assists and thirteenth position in assist-to-turnover ratio indicate a desire to constantly generate the best quality shots through ball movement. These metrics emphasize the three main tenets of Cornell’s system: pace, forcing turnovers, and taking good shots.

Williams indicated that the team looks at the stats, but is more focused on the process that gets them there than remaining at the top of the rankings.

“What’s important for us is playing fast, but playing smart, and always making the right play,” said Williams. “A lot of the time we pass up good shots for great shots, and the great shots are usually wide open three-point shots for good three-point shooters.”

Another important aspect of the Big Red’s system is major contributions from the bench. Cornell finished fifth nationally last season in bench points per game with 30.43 and usually gives consistent minutes to ten to twelve players each game. For a team that does so much running and pressing, this depth is imperative: players in this type of system get tired more quickly than in others and thus play shorter shifts of high-intensity basketball with consistent rest.

Cornell’s system is a derivative of “run and gun” styles that have occasionally popped up in basketball since the 1970s, so it is unsurprising that Big Red players can largely be categorized as either “runners'' or “gunners.”

Cornell’s “runners,” exemplified by the guard tandem of Gray and Chris Manon ’24, use elite speed, physical strength, and leaping ability to lead the Big Red fast break. Along with guard Jacob Beccles ‘27, these players look to attack the rim at every opportunity and play aggressive defense at the point of attack.

Meanwhile, Cornell’s “gunners” include sharpshooters Cooper Noard ’26, Keller Boothby ’24, and Jake Fiegen ’27, who take threes early and often. Centers Guy Ragland Jr. ’25 and Sean Hansen ’24 are also prototypical stretch bigs, allowing for even better floor spacing. Ragland Jr. in particular made the top of the key his own last year, taking a staggering 5.43 threes per game off the bench.

As a result, Cornell’s unique ethos creates interesting patterns of play on the court, some of which are rarely seen anywhere else in the basketball world.

One way Cornell looks to increase the pace of the game is by frequently looking to trap opponents and force turnovers. This is a risky strategy: if Cornell’s opposition is able to break the trap, they will likely get an open look. When it works, however, Cornell is able to get steals and easy baskets in bunches.

During the first half of a November 11th game against Fordham, a Rams player grabs the rebound off of a missed Cornell free throw.

Rather than getting back on defense, Cornell players look to trap, as forward AK Okereke ’26 and Ragland Jr. surround the player with the ball while Boothby and Manon look to cut off passing lanes. This leaves only Williams back to prevent a fast break.

As Cornell forces the Fordham player towards the baseline, he throws a bad pass, which Ragland Jr. is able to deflect as soon as it leaves his hands. Boothby is in position to grab the loose ball…

…and finish a wide open layup.

Cornell is not done, though. From the inbounds, they trap again. Manon pressures the Fordham guard, forcing him towards the sideline. Boothby notices this and gets ready to bring a double team.

Boothby commits to the double, and the Fordham player, trapped between two Cornell defenders and the sideline, makes a risky skip pass. Due to the angle of the pass, Okereke is in position to defend three Fordham players at once.

Under pressure from two Cornell defenders, the Fordham player is unable to corral a high pass, and the Big Red get the ball back when it goes out of bounds.

Cornell has forced two turnovers in quick succession, showcasing the desired outcome when playing such aggressive defense. A clever technique in both of these plays is Cornell’s use of the sidelines to act as an extra defender in the trap. Some teams look to trap in the middle of the court, but the Big Red usually use the boundaries as an “extra” defender to force the issue and are often rewarded.

It is interesting to note, however, that although Cornell is still utilizing the trap much more often than most teams this season, both Gray and Williams indicated that the team has made an adjustment to find even more balance between trapping and half-court defense this year. When analyzing their games, the team noticed that the trap had not been effective enough in forcing turnovers to warrant so many easy looks.

“We’re focusing on being more solid as a group,” Williams explained, “We did force a lot of turnovers last year, but we also gave up a high field goal percentageIt’s a lot more half-court defense, and just making sure that we guard our man and we guard the ball, individually and as a collective”.

When the opponents do score, Cornell responds with speed, rapidly progressing the ball down the court and searching for transition three-pointers or layups.

In the second half against Fordham, Hansen inbounds quickly to Manon following a Rams basket. Noard and forward DJ Nix ‘26 sprint down the court, trying to beat Fordham defenders to the other end.

Nix receives Manon’s pass, and has beaten a smaller defender to the baseline.

Taking advantage of this mismatch, Nix gets a high-percentage layup in transition. Three Cornell players are also wide open on the perimeter as passing options.

In around five seconds, Cornell has gone from end to end, culminating in a layup that Nix is nearly guaranteed to make. Attempting to move so quickly off of made baskets is very rare in the world of basketball and demonstrates Cornell’s commitment to relentless running and pressure.

When the other team does get back on defense and forces Cornell into a half-court set, they look to move the ball and generate good looks. This means primarily looking for two kinds of shots: catch-and-shoot threes and backdoor layups.

In this instance, Fordham has prevented a Big Red transition. Fiegen makes an entry pass to Ragland Jr. in the low post.

After he passes, Fiegen immediately cuts to the rim, beating his defender. Meanwhile, Manon screens for Williams at the top of the key.

Ragland Jr. is unable to find Fiegen, but Williams immediately cuts, and the screen from Manon sets him free. Ragland Jr. goes for the bounce pass.

Williams bobbles the pass, but is able to recover. Meanwhile, Fiegen has continued his move to the corner, and is wide open. Williams passes.

A rotating defender is able to contest, but this is a good look for an elite shooter like Fiegen, and he buries it. Had there been more time on the shot clock, a swing pass to Okereke along the perimeter would also have been an excellent option.

Through off-ball screens, cuts, and movement, Cornell has generated a solid three-point look and would have gotten an easy layup if Williams had not fumbled the ball. These motion principles are not unique, but Cornell goes through them at a rapid pace, playing to their specific strengths in terms of speed and three-point shooting. Especially when the opposition defense is tired after chasing the Big Red in transition, Cornell is able to generate good shots in the half-court while almost never relying on inefficient isolation possessions. Williams emphasized the uncertainty that Cornell’s actions can cause in other teams, who are not always ready for so much rapid movement in the half-court.

“The types of actions we run are sort of a controlled chaos—it might look like a cut, a ball screen, and a bunch of people moving, but it's all within the scheme,” said Williams. “We know what we’re doing, but to other teams, it's just confusing.”

Cornell plays in a way that makes basketball purists groan, lamenting the days when the average team took up whole shot clocks by dumping the ball to the big man and letting him go to work. This traditional way of playing simply is not supported by the analytics, with post-ups and isolation amongst the least efficient ways to score. While the majority of teams are moving towards a model based on layups and threes, Cornell has taken this to the extreme, launching threes at every possible opportunity and playing at an intense pace.

Their approach of constant running is common at the AAU and High School levels, but few have been able to successfully bring it to the NCAA. With jobs on the line, only a very brave coach and coaching staff would be prepared to use this strategy at such a high level and stick with it through the rough periods that inevitably befall a team shooting such a high amount of threes. Rather than responding to these skids, such as the losing streak at the end of last year’s Ivy League season, Cornell’s coaches have used them as an opportunity to learn and adapt their system in subtle but meaningful ways, such as extending the amount of time players are on the court or playing a bit more half-court defense.

The ingenuity that Coach Earl and his staff have shown fits in perfectly at a school like Cornell, which is always on the forefront of innovation, and was what inspired me, someone who primarily analyzes soccer, to take a look at basketball. Mirroring the risk-taking that the Cornell coaches display when they employ such a unique strategy, I moved outside my comfort zone and thoroughly enjoyed diving into the film and data of such a different sport. It became clear to me that although Cornell’s system is unique now, it will not be long before the greater basketball community catches up. When it does, I am confident that Earl and Cornell will already be ahead, adapting and looking for ways to stay on the cutting edge.


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