After a month-long search, Cornell hired former Princeton assistant Brian Earl this week to be its next head coach. Earl takes over a difficult situation; the Big Red has a spotty basketball history and spent the last six seasons below .500. But as one of the Ivy League’s most respected and longest-tenured assistants, he should bring much-needed change in a few areas.
Earl had a four-year playing career at Princeton, winning the Ivy League Player of the Year award in 1999, and he spent the last nine seasons on the Tigers’ sideline. His Ancient Eight experience helped win over players in on-campus interviews, according to the Cornell Daily Sun’s report (which is worth reading in full). Earl referenced his history in Thursday’s introductory press conference, quipping: “I was on the receiving end of beatings in ‘08, ‘09, and 2010 from their great teams, and I’m so excited to turn around and say, ‘We were awesome in the Sweet 16’ … I’ve had to explain away the mistakes I made on the defensive end [against them] for so long that I’m looking to embrace that team.”
On the Tigers’ staff, Earl was primarily responsible for defense. But he has a reputation as a good overall tactician, and he touched both sides of the ball — he was instrumental in drawing up the most famous Princeton shot of this century. He’s said that his strategy will be flexible (he summed up his offensive philosophy Thursday as “make shots”), but his lineage points to some changes likely to come in Cornell’s offense.
Earl is the eighth Princeton alumnus to become a current or recent D-I head coach. Pete Carril’s disciples have varied in how strictly they follow the ‘Princeton Offense’, but all share one attribute: Lots of ball movement. With the exception of Chris Mooney’s Richmond in 2014, every team with a Tiger-bred head coach has had a higher assist rate than the D-I average since 2013.
That’s a trait the Big Red has sorely lacked: Only 43% of its field goals were assisted last year, in the bottom 10 nationally. Cornell has had the least efficient Ivy offense for two straight seasons, in part because it’s relied too heavily on one-on-one play.
As a result, the Big Red got few easy chances. Less than a quarter of their attempts in Ivy play last year came inside the restricted area, by far the league’s lowest rate. Earl has worked with Princeton squads that maximize high-percentage shots, regularly ranking near the bottom of the nation in two-point jumpers attempted.
That doesn’t mean Cornell will immediately mirror Princeton’s offensive philosophy. A rigid system wouldn’t take advantage of its personnel — Matt Morgan is a generationally talented one-on-one scorer, and Darryl Smith was truly efficient from mid-range. But Earl should nudge the Big Red’s shot selection in more efficient ways.
One of those might be to rein in rising senior Robert Hatter. Hatter has used at least 25% of Cornell’s possessions in each of his three seasons — including an astronomical 35% last year even while battling an ankle injury — but his offensive rating has never reached triple digits (and never even 90 in Ivy play). With Morgan established as a high-volume scorer and several underclassmen gaining experience, there’s no reason for Hatter to take anywhere near 30% of the Big Red’s shots again this season. But his assist rate also spiked last year, a skill that should be featured more heavily.
Cornell continued to shoot a lot of three-pointers in the post-Steve Donahue era, but Bill Courtney struggled to get enough quality shooters; the Big Red was below-average in long-range accuracy in his last five seasons. Over time Earl, who retired as the Ivy League’s leading three-point shooter (he has since been passed by Ryan Wittman and Laurent Rivard), will likely make recruiting and developing marksmen a higher priority.
On the other end of the floor, Cornell has played a high-pressure style, and Earl said he expects to continue taking advantage of his team’s speed. But the Big Red’s defense was below-average last year, in part because of their lack of size. David Onourah is an impact rim protector when not sidelined by foul trouble. Stone Gettings could improve as a sophomore and Cornell brings in two other big men, but it will probably remain a small team in 2017.
Earl has the perfect background for that roster, having built a solid defense from a guard-heavy Princeton rotation last year. He’ll bring over some best practices of smaller defenses, such as running opponents off the three-point line, but most important will be the ability to rebound effectively: Cornell had the sixth-worst defensive rebound rate in Division I last year, while the Tigers were in the top 50. If that doesn’t improve, Earl will experience a lot of frustrating long possessions.
Though Earl should bring some positive changes to Cornell, his path forward isn’t easy. The Big Red was outscored by a league-worst .14 points per possession last year. Even with almost everyone returning, that’s a long way from .500, which is the rough standard to contend for a top-four finish and the first Ivy League Tournament. In the longer run, Cornell is fighting uphill against Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Penn (and maybe even Columbia).