Big Red is ready for Big Blue.
Cornell has smashed all ideas that the basketball program is simply a bunch of Ivy League brainiacs who should be thrilled with just playing one game in the NCAA tournament.
The Big Red are enjoying their moment as the dominant darlings of the tournament.
They pounded single-digit seeds Temple and Wisconsin by 31 points to become the lowest seed to advance this year to the round of 16 and the first Ivy League team to reach the second weekend of the tournament since 1979.
And the 12th-seeded Big Red (29-4) did it with the type of fun and flair often missing in the serious survive-and-advance mood of March.
The upperclassmen told quirky stories about their video-game playing and “Lost” parties in the house they share and affectionately call the Dog Pound. A lost wager forced one player to give a ridiculous non-answer to the first question of an off-day news conference that baffled reporters. When basketballs were nowhere to be found on the ball rack, Cornell ran its layup line without them and acted like nothing was out of the ordinary.
So why stop now?
Up ahead for Big Red, the top-seeded Kentucky Wildcats (34-2) in the East Regional semifinal Thursday in Syracuse, N.Y., about an hour from Cornell’s campus.
“I don’t know how much extra motivation you need in the Sweet 16, trying to play to go to the Elite Eight,” forward Ryan Wittman said Tuesday. “If that’s not motivation already, you shouldn’t be here.”
Cornell is undaunted by the challenge of playing the Wildcats after testing its mettle against the big boys of basketball.
The Big Red pushed then-No. 1 Kansas to the limit in Allen Fieldhouse before losing 71-66 in January. They trailed by only six at halftime in an 88-73 loss at Syracuse in November — at the Carrier Dome where they’ll play Thursday.
They easily knocked off the Atlantic 10 champion Owls and shot 61 percent from the field to dominate the Big Ten’s Badgers last weekend in Jacksonville, Fla.
Cornell won’t back down against any team — even the Wildcats and their seven NCAA championships. Cornell vs. Kentucky is no mismatch between one program known for brains and another for basketball brawn.
Cornell is tournament-tested and stocked with seniors who have reached three straight NCAA tournaments and played in a slew of big games in intimidating environments.
Kentucky is just the latest favored team in Big Red’s way, not the first.
“We want to advance; we expected to advance,” Wittman said. “That was one of our goals. We just didn’t want to be here.”
Cornell has history on its side, even though it stretches back nearly 44 years. The Big Red won their lone matchup against Kentucky, 92-77 on Dec. 28, 1966. Cornell won the game a season after Kentucky lost to Texas Western College (now UTEP) in the national championship game. The Wildcats finished the season 13-13, 8-10 in the SEC.
Cornell hopes playing so close to home — its campus is a mere 55 miles away from Syracuse — will give it a home-dome advantage. Neutral fans who show up to watch the Washington-West Virginia game are usually swayed into rooting for the underdog, especially against a basketball blue blood like Kentucky.
“Hopefully we can get a lot of fans up there,” Wittman said. “Obviously, we should be pretty familiar with the arena, playing there the past few years. Hopefully, we can get a lot of Syracuse fans cheering for us, as well.”
Playing against a Kentucky team full of budding stars like freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Cornell will need all the help it can get to have a chance of pulling off its third straight upset.
Big Red’s run is only surprising when looking at the early years of coach Steve Donahue’s tenure. He won a total of 12 games in his first two seasons at Cornell and had losing records his first six seasons.
Cornell’s faith and patience in Donahue was rewarded.
“We really bought into his concepts and his ideas,” Wittman said. “We’ve been extremely successful with that. He’s got a great ability to not only be a great X’s and O’s coach, but he knows how to relate to players and when to get on certain guys and demand certain things.”
Donahue refused to discuss the possibility of moving on to a bigger job next season during a teleconference that was cut short because of a prank caller.
“I’ve got eight seniors that this is the time of their lives and I want to do whatever I can to advance in this tournament,” he said.