The Light Blue men’s basketball team knows heartbreak after stumbling down the stretch the past two seasons, but head coach Joe Jones has made it a priority of keep his team mentally tough. Jones’ methodical brand of basketball, emphasizing energy and physicality on defense and execution on offense, fits well in the Ivy League, a conference known for its low-scoring, defensively minded play. Avoiding mistakes and controlling the tempo will be key to Columbia’s game plan this season.
Whether the Lions can develop the chemistry to carry it out, though, will be a major factor in determining their success. The frontcourt, some inexperienced and others injury-prone, must replace key 2009 graduates Jason Miller and Joe Bova. The list of those expected to fill the void is headlined by transfer Brian Grimes, who missed one year after transferring and another due to a torn ACL. Another transfer, 7-footer Max Craig, will be forced to spend the early part of the season on the sidelines due to a foot injury suffered a few weeks ago. Junior Asenso Ampim, who helped control the paint for the Lions last year, has missed time each of his first two years due to injury. Also battling for playing time in the post will be freshmen newcomers Mark Cisco (6-foot-8) and John Daniels (6-foot-7).
Evaluating the team’s various options down low, Jones said: “We have a lot of guys that I think can really help up front.” Nonetheless, he acknowledged the importance new faces will have given the absence of battle-tested players.
“Of anybody who is going to play who didn’t last year it’ll be guys on the front line,” he said.
The backcourt, patrolled by several talented upperclassmen, has played together a great deal, but not recently. Senior co-captains Patrick Foley and Niko Scott were also limited this summer by injuries, forcing them to try to make up for lost playing time and find their rhythm in the preseason.
Of course, the Lions will need to score in order to win, and this year’s squad must find a way to assert itself on the offensive end of the floor without weakening itself on defense. Foley is entering his senior year as the starting point guard for the Light Blue, and whether the team finds its balance will depend heavily on the co-captain.
He possesses a rare combination of experience and flare that allows him to be both a playmaker and a scoring threat from the point. Jones discussed Foley’s importance in an Ivy League teleconference.
“Pat has to do a job for us in terms of making good decisions of when to score it, when to pass it,” he said. “We’ve used him in the past as a scorer and we’ll be dependent on him to do that, but I think his distribution, in terms of his assist-to-turnover ratio and running our ballclub at a high level, is going to be as important and where I want him to go.”
Scott and co-captain Kevin Bulger will be relied upon heavily to lead the team’s defensive efforts. Bulger, the team’s co-MVP last winter, and Scott, the reigning team defensive MVP, bring energy and experience to the floor. Scott is also a dangerous long-range shooter, connecting on more than 42 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.
Another key component of the Lions’ squad will be sophomore Noruwa Agho. The strong, explosive guard came on strong late in the 2008-2009 season, averaging 10.5 points in Ivy competition and eclipsing the 20-point mark three times. His work ethic has caught Jones’ eye.
“Probably since I’ve been here we’ve never had a kid work as hard as he works on a daily basis,” Jones said. “He works on his game constantly and wants to be a great player.”
Experience in the backcourt could prove key early as the Light Blue schedule opens with trips to DePaul and Syracuse. Later in the nonconference slate, Columbia will face two tough Patriot League squads in Bucknell and Lehigh.
Those games will offer the Lions a chance to come together early, but the true test will begin at the start of Ivy play. The real question is where Columbia will be by then. Title contender in the league’s upper echelon? Maybe. A disappointment? Also possible. That’s what makes this year so unpredictable.