MOUNT VERNON – Cornell's first two games back in the Midwest Conference summed up the 2012-13 season for coach Chad Murray's men's basketball team.
The Rams opened conference play with a 58-54 home win over preseason favorite St. Norbert, a Green Knight squad that lost only twice more and wound up as MWC champions. Murray billed it perhaps the best win in his four seasons at Cornell.
Three nights later, Cornell fell by four points on the road to last-place Knox.
"Those two games showed where we are at," Murray said. "To win a grind-it-out game against St. Norbert, the style they like to play, was definitely a highlight and proved what we can do. We had some other nice wins. In other games, we were a possession away here or there. We saw a crack in the door, but weren't quite ready to bust through."
Cornell topped last season's win total (three) by Christmas Break and finished 8-15 overall. The Rams went 7-11 in the MWC behind a primary starting lineup of two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman.
Joey Guth (16.0 ppg) and Reggie Greenwood (15.7 ppg) formed the top scoring tandem in the MWC. Both are back for their senior seasons. Guth emerged as a go-to player, doubling his scoring output from last season while shooting over 50.0 percent from the field. Greenwood is 14 points shy of 1,000 and ranks sixth on the program's career list for assists (270).
Sophomore post Nick Bobb showed marked improvement in his game, averaging 10.7 points and 5.1 rebounds in 23 starts. He'll be among 10 upperclassmen projected to return in 2013-14.
"We'll have six seniors and four juniors coming back," Murray said. "As our leadership gets better, we'll be able to win more games."
First-year players Peter Catchings and Tabari Carter brought athleticism to the starting lineup. Catchings was a top defender and finished second in assists (53). Carter, a sophomore, shot 51.3 percent from his guard position. Freshman Ben Knake provided key minutes off the bench and committed just 10 turnovers in 21 games.
The Rams made significant strides on the offensive end, ranking fourth in the MWC in scoring at 74.6 points per game – after averaging 61.1 in 2011-12. Cornell ranked third in Division III in free throw percentage (77.1), making 70 more foul shots than last season in two fewer games.
"I challenged our guys at the end of last season to become better and more skilled basketball players," Murray said. "They absolutely did that. We changed our offense to better suit our personnel, and it definitely benefited us. We proved that we can score. We just have to prove that we can stop other teams."
The Rams return more than 85.0 percent of their scoring next season. They'll be one of the most experienced teams in the MWC.
"It's payoff time for these guys after all the trials and heartaches they've been through," Murray said. "We have a lot of work to do, but we're motivated to take that next step."