Editor’s Note:  This story was written by and republished with the permission of the Big Red Sports Network, which provides excellent Cornell sports coverage throughout the year for alumni, parents, students and fans everywhere.

Ithaca Is Bluegrass Jan. 23-25

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When a team’s best player goes down, it’s never easy to pick up the pieces.

Late in the 2012-2013 season, Cornell’s star forward Shonn Miller (a sophomore at the time) went down with a shoulder injury and ended up missing the final four games of the season. With hopes of returning for the 2013-2014 season, Miller had the summer months to get healthier, but when early November rolled by, his shoulder injury still prevented him from playing the entire year. Cornell suffered, winning only 7.1% of their games with the record 2-26.

It certainly was a letdown year and a note Miller didn’t want to end on. He continued to work until he was healthy, so when this 2014-2015 season arrived, Miller was determined.

Miller airborne

As an underclassman, Miller led the Ivy League in block percentage, steals per game, and was second in player efficiency rating, blocks, and defensive rebounding percentage. Shonn Miller is a proven talent on the court and his effect on the Big Red hasn’t gone unnoticed.

With sixteen games under their belt, the Big Red stand at 8-8 overall against their non-conference schedule before heading into their stretch of Ivy League conference match-ups to end the season.

How will they fare? Time will tell, but let’s take a look at how much of a difference Shonn Miller has made this season, statistically. They say defense wins championships, and if Cornell wants any shot of snagging this year’s Ivy League title, they’re going to have to keep up their superior defensive play.

Since Miller’s return, it’s become evident that Cornell’s defense is their strong suit. The Big Red are allowing opponents a mere 62.2 points per game – for some perspective on Miller’s defensive presence, their opponents scored 78.4 points per game last year.

That’s a very significant difference; so, how is Miller doing it? Through being an absolute stat machine, elevating the play of his teammates, and overall just being a nightmare as a defensive matchup. The 6’7” forward is averaging nearly 2 blocks per game and is currently second in the Ivy League with a defensive rating of 86.5 (defensive rating describes an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions).

On top of this impressive stat, Miller is currently first in the Ivy League in defensive win shares with 1.4 (this statistic describes an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player due to his defense). That Miller’s defense has earned Cornell nearly two wins through 16 games is pretty extraordinary, and cannot be overlooked.

In addition to his outstanding defense, Miller is also a top-notch offensive weapon and rebounder – his current stat line is 17.2 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 1.4 APG, all while shooting an efficient 47.2% from the field (his effective field goal percentage, which adjusts for 3-pt FGs, is closer to 50%). He also leads the Ivy League in points, free throws, free throw percentage, and is second in points produced per game.

Since returning to the floor this year, many of Cornell’s roster has seen improved play. Guard Robert Hatter started for the Big Red last year gathering the second-most minutes on the team – he ended the season with an 11 PER and averaged 9 PPG/1.6 RPG/2.1 APG on 40.6% shooting. This year, with Miller healthy, Hatter’s stock has risen and he is now sitting at an 18.6 PER averaging 12.4/2.5 RPG/0.7 APG on 40.4% shooting.

This is only one example, but the trend is quite evident across many other teammates. Another angle we can take a look at is team statistics; here’s a quick breakdown of the 2013-2014 season compared to the 2014-2015 season:

It’s easy to see how much better this team has gotten with the return of Miller – these stats paint a vivid picture of how much of a difference one player can make, but then again, I have yet to mention the steady play of guard Galal Cancer, another senior who missed the entire season last year – Cancer’s play has been quite impressive putting up terrific numbers as well and contributing 1.3 win shares so far this season.

There are a lot of good things going for Big Red basketball right now, especially after coming off an astronomical 107-29 win over Alfred State before conference play begins. Momentum is on Cornell’s side as they’re sitting at 3rd place in the Ivy League. A couple of big time wins over Harvard and Yale may lead to another tournament appearance for the Big Red, as long as Miller stays healthy and keeps dominating the competition.

Fans should be excited for the rest of the season, and even more excited just to watch this man go through anyone in his path.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.