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Kentucky vs. Cornell: Where hoops worlds collide

Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins, left, walks off the court

Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins, left, walks off the court with John Wall after an NCAA college basketball practice in Syracuse, N.Y. (March 24, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

SYRACUSE - The temptation is to portray tonight's East Regional semifinal between top-seeded Kentucky and 12th-seeded Ivy League champion Cornell as "athletes vs. eggheads.'' But that's not entirely true.

An unscientific poll of Big Red senior stars Ryan Wittman, Jeff Foote and Louis Dale Wednesday revealed each wants to pursue a basketball career after graduation, not an investment banking job. They're not as interested in heading to Wall Street as they are in heading off John Wall, Kentucky's freshman superstar who might be the top pick in the NBA draft if freshman teammate DeMarcus Cousins doesn't beat him to it.

But yes, it is a fascinating matchup of teams from parallel universes. Kentucky (34-2) attracts the cream of the recruiting crop, while Cornell (29-4) can't even offer athletic scholarships.

"I'm enough of a college basketball fan to understand why this is so intriguing to everybody,'' Cornell coach Steve Donahue said Wednesday. "I don't know if our guys really understand it. They believe they're a good enough team to play with anybody in the country. But obviously, when [Kentucky has] three or four first-round NBA picks and you're an Ivy League school with different goals professionally afterwards, there's a little different feeling on how you're going to approach this.''

You figure the Wildcats, who start three freshmen, including point guard Eric Bledsoe, simply will rely on their athleticism, with Wall's lightning moves to the basket and the 6-11 Cousins dominating the paint.

But Wall said athleticism "is not going to play a big part in the game. Basically, go out and play defense like we did the first two games. We know they're a great three-point shooting team. We have to guard the three-point line and not let them get to the free-throw line.''

Cornell was the nation's top three-point shooting team this season, and its 58.8 percentage on two-point shots in the tournament is the best of the 16 survivors, just ahead of Kentucky (56.1). The Big Red's other asset is the experience of a starting lineup that includes a fourth senior, Jon Jaques.

But Cornell has a contrarian on that point.

"If anything, we might be the more inexperienced team,'' said Foote, the 7-footer who will battle Cousins. "They're used to playing on national TV, big-time spotlight. John Wall has been the No. 1 pick in a lot of people's minds for a while now. This is our first Sweet 16 ever, so I don't think there's a lot of experience that's going to play a big factor.''

One thing that should be in the Big Red's favor is the crowd. Kentucky travels with massive fan support, but Cornell is located in Ithaca, about an hour's drive away. "We're going to be feeding off the energy from them,'' forward Ryan Wittman said. "Our passion buckets are going to be filled to the brim.''

Passion buckets? Wittman cracked up himself and Foote with that bit of Ivy League humor.

Clearly, Cornell and Kentucky come from different worlds, but Wildcats coach John Calipari cautioned that Cornell isn't a typical Ivy team in the slowdown style of Princeton.

"I think they play fast,'' Calipari said of the Big Red. "They'll look to score off the first or second pass if you let them. I mean, they're good.''

What Calipari didn't say is that Kentucky isn't Princeton, either.

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