For much of 2014, I touted February 2015 as the most significant month for Columbia Athletics in many years. As it turns out, this was the case, but certainly not for the reasons I thought it would be. With promise on the playing field and new leadership in place, March has come in like a Lion we have never seen before.
In February, Columbia addressed its football program’s woes and communication failures. Now, University President Lee Bollinger seems more invested in athletics than ever before, and Athletic Director Peter Pilling is willing to listen, making great strides already in the hiring of Al Bagnoli.
The former Penn head coach’s mere presence changes the attitudes around the football team—now respectable rather than a laughing stock—and the interest in the team within the Ivy League and New York. His ability to recruit both athletes and coaches will certainly alter the results on the field. In turn, it can accentuate the already-successful programs at Columbia. From fencing to tennis, squash, and, most notably, baseball. After beating No. 6 Houston twice, the baseball team seemingly finds new ways to impress every year. It has already earned votes in the most recent NCAA rankings and should probably set its sights on a major league opponent.
However, I had thought this past month would be significant not because of the above transformational successes, but because of a men’s basketball team in pursuit of its first Ivy title in 47 years. So if you told me in September that by the end of February, the Lions would be 5-7 in Ivy play and the average temperature for the month would be 24 degrees, I may have tried to make other plans for my winter. But although Columbia was swept twice by its northern New England counterparts in the last three weeks, there has been more good than bad to take away.
Expectations for the Light Blue were lowered at the start of the season due to attrition, highlighted by the loss of Alex Rosenberg. While Columbia had a terrific stretch in December, headlined by the game at No. 1 Kentucky—where the Lions held the now 30-0 Wildcats to what is still their lowest point total of the season—it was likely the team would be a little too high-variance for the 14-game tournament.
However, the answers I received to my preseason questions are promising. Kyle Castlin did not hit a rookie wall, and he will continue to defy all expectations. Junior guard Maodo Lo is one of the greatest athletes in Columbia history. He can create shots and steals at will, and his crossover move is too good for the Ivy League.
The problem is that Lo cannot single-handedly will his team to victory, evidenced by the fact Columbia lost Saturday’s game, even though he dropped 33 points.
Indeed, senior night against Harvard was disappointing for the Lions—the team simply lacked enough quality depth. The preseason departures coupled with the losses of senior guard Steve Frankoski and sophomore forward Luke Petrasek, as well as sophomore center Connor Voss’ nose (sophomore Kenyatta Smith broke it during the game) were too much to overcome, especially when you fail to play defense.
Head coach Kyle Smith and his staff must be credited for their ability to hold the team together in the face of a depleted roster. After a devastating trip to Harvard and Dartmouth, Columbia could not have come out of the gates the following weekend more focused and energized. Instead of hanging their heads, the Lions won their first games at both Brown and Yale.
Columbia has proven it can compete with the best of the Ivy League. By virtue of their win at Yale, the Lions are as big a factor as any in why the game at Harvard will decide the Ivy title on Friday.
There is reason to believe the Light Blue will soon be the Ivies’ best. Sure, Columbia went 2-5 at home in league play—leaving Kyle Smith searching for answers—but the Lions proved last year that they can be dominant at home.
More importantly, Columbia finally proved it can win away from Levien Gymnasium with its first Ivy road sweep in seven years. If the Lions win one of their games this weekend (considering they have never swept the Penn-Princeton trip before), they will record their first winning Ivy road season in 15 years. A win would likely berth another trip to the postseason, and a chance to build off of last year’s newfound momentum.
We can soon start touting February 2016, but let’s not lose sight of what is on the line this weekend for Columbia basketball.