MOUNT VERNON — The Cornell men’s basketball team has undertaken a bit of a youth movement.
The Rams graduated six seniors from last season’s 12-13 squad, including their top three scorers. As Cornell posted its first Midwest Conference victory of the season Wednesday against Knox, the starting lineup featured three freshmen and two sophomores.
“We’re playing a lot of young guys and they’re maturing at a pretty good rate,” second-year Cornell Coach Dave Schlabaugh said. “But it’s not easy playing as many new bodies as we’ve had to play this year, but we’re pretty happy with the progression of it.”
The young Rams took plenty of early lumps this season, thanks in part to an aggressive nonconference schedule. But improvement has been evident. After dropping seven if its first eight contests, Cornell (3-9, 1-4 MWC) won two of four.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to take a deep breath and know that we’re young and there is going to be some challenges to it,” 6-foot-5 sophomore forward Cooper Kabela said. “It’s also fun to see the growth that we have when we do get better and improve on little things that we’re working on.”
With a roster replete with youthful contributors, Kabela has distinguished himself by leading the Rams in scoring with 13.9 points per game. He also averages 4.5 rebounds. As a high school senior two years ago, Kabela was a Class 2A first team all-state selection at West Branch, where he averaged 23.8 points and 7.8 rebounds and got the Bears within a game of the state tournament.
As a Cornell freshman last season, Kabela played in 25 games and started one. He averaged 3.8 points per game as he tried to incorporate his game into a senior-dominated lineup.
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“Last year, I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes,” Kabela said. “This year, I just have more confidence in myself and feel when I get an open shot, I need to be ready and take it. Be ready when the moment comes.”
Schlabaugh appears to have found a starting lineup he likes with Kabela at forward, fellow sophomore Michael Drew at guard, then three freshmen — Scotland native Marcus Quirk at forward and guards TJ Connaker (team-high 48 assists) of Arizona and former Mount Pleasant prep Jordan Magnani (team-high 15 steals).
“All three of them have adapted to the college game fairly quickly,” Schlabaugh said. “They’ve been really consistent doing the things that we ask both on the defensive end and the offensive end. They’ve just earned the minutes that they’re getting and all three of them have done a nice job.”
After starting the first 11 games of the season, Davenport Assumption graduate and Monmouth transfer Cam Sturtevant will be counted on to provide an offensive spark off the bench.
The Rams hit the road for conference games against St. Norbert on Saturday, then Ripon on Tuesday.
“We’ve got to take our defensive effort from (Wednesday) night,” Kabela said. “We’ve been working a lot on it. Offense might struggle a little bit on the road, but we can always play good defense on the road. That always travels. We need to come out with a good defensive effort.”
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