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Cinderella looks good in red Surprising Cornell ready for Kentucky

Of all the Cinderellas in this year's version of March Madness -- and there are a few to choose from -- the one with the prettiest gown is decked out in red.

Who saw Cornell coming? No one, save themselves. For no one, save themselves, could feel the storm brewing from nearby Ithaca.

"A couple of us before the year, especially the seniors, were talking about the Sweet 16 being a realistic goal for our team," Big Red senior forward Jon Jaques said. "Now that we are here I think we are excited but at the same time our business isn't done yet."

So, obviously Cornell isn't intimidated. Not even by big, bad Kentucky, which now is one of the favorites to win it all.

Lots of people have been asking that about Cornell for months now, and with good reason. So who are these guys?

Much of the country's knowledge of Cornell begins with sweet-shooting forward Ryan Wittman, but that's only because his father, Randy, played at Indiana under Bob Knight and enjoyed a lengthy NBA career as a player and coach.

The rest are largely unknown, many of them lightly recruited, some undersized.

A force of nearly indistinguishable parts, only 16-12 three years ago, Cornell somehow transformed itself into a 29-4 team. It was three years ago when coach Steve Donahue watched as things began to take shape.

"I think if you look at us over the last three years, you saw it coming," Donahue said. "When this group was freshmen . . . we beat Northwestern [on the road] starting two freshmen."

There is Louis Dale, who was so lightly recruited out of Birmingham, Ala., that he had to send videotapes to Cornell just to get noticed. He's been named first-team All-Ivy League for three years running.

There is Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Jeff Foote, the 7-footer who is a former walk-on at St. Bonaventure. Foote missed just four shots and hit 11 in games against Syracuse and Kansas.

There is sophomore guard Chris Wroblewski, who is already the school's career three-point field goal percentage leader.

There is Wittman, the Ivy League Player of the Year who shoots threes as effortlessly as his dad. He became just the fifth player in Ivy League history to score more than 2,000 points.

Blue chip recruits? Try Kentucky. There's none among the bunch at Cornell. But 29 wins means they can play.

"There is a stereotype that because we are an Ivy League team that we fit a certain mold," freshman forward Eitan Chemerinski said. "We are a very intelligent team, but at the same time there are a bunch of great athletes and great basketball players."

Donahue has to turn over several rocks to uncover gems. He recruits by looking ahead where a skinny 18-year-old like Wittman can put on 30 pounds of muscle by the time he's 22. It was a bonus that he eventually grew three inches.

He digs by finding players like Dale, who eagerly wanted to play college basketball and was just looking for an opportunity.

"For whatever reason, maybe size, maybe he went to a small school," Donahue said. "Maybe he's such a nice kid that maybe they don't think he can compete, which is bull. But that's how you end up with kids like him."

Kids like Dale have games like a career-high 26 points against Wisconsin. Then there's Wittman, who proved he could play in the Big Ten by burning the Badgers for 24 points.

Recognition isn't hard to come by now.

It started with season-opening victories over Alabama and Massachusetts followed by wins over Saint Joseph's and St. John's. Observers really started keeping their eye on the Big Red when it gave No. 1 Kansas all it could handle in a 71-66 loss. They lost one more game the rest of the season.

Still, doubters remained coming into the first round against No. 5 seed Temple, which the Big Red dispatched by 13. Maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise considering Kansas blew out the Owls by 32 back in January. The 87-69 victory over No. 4 seed Wisconsin was even easier.

Now No. 1 Kentucky, the Big Blue, awaits. The Wildcats have the new Fab Five minus two in freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe; all will end up playing 82 games a season whenever they want.

Chances are this giddy ride will end tonight for Cornell and as Dale said last week most of the Big Red are preparing for life with "babies and memories."

But before that happens, how about another round?

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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