On Friday night, Columbia men’s basketball will open its home slate at Levien Gym for the 2009-2010 campaign. Its opponent, the Longwood Lancers of Lynchburg, Va., will arrive 0-3 and reeling from a 98-59 shellacking at the hands of Old Dominion on Tuesday night. Columbia is also winless, although in their only game so far the Lions took the DePaul Blue Demons to the wire in their season opener, a scrappy 59-53 loss in Chicago. Light Blue co-captain Patrick Foley had a contested look at a three-pointer with less than a minute to play against the Blue Demons, but his shot found the back of the rim and the rebound went to the Blue Demons.
DePaul is a member of the powerhouse Big East conference, yet its pedigree is not as impressive as it seems. The Blue Demons went winless last season in league play, losing by an average of 16.4 points and dropping decisions to nonconference minnows Morgan State and Northwestern. Despite that fact, Columbia showed enough in its scrappy comeback late in the second half to feel good going forward.
Forward Brian Grimes had a promising coming-out party, chalking up a double-double in his first game for the Light Blue after sitting out two years after transferring to Morningside Heights from La Salle in 2007-2008 and then tearing his ACL in preseason last year. The imposing Grimes logged 33 minutes on the night, scoring 13 points and pulling down 11 rebounds. Sophomore guard Noruwa Agho also contributed heavily to the Lions’ effort, scoring 13 points and connecting on three of six attempts from beyond the arc.
The Lions will need both in order to ensure a successful home opener against the Lancers. In addition, Columbia will hope the talented Foley can regain his scoring touch after posting a disappointing nine points against DePaul. Foley, just like several other Light Blue players, is working his way back into form after an offseason injury.
Longwood has struggled thus far this year, conceding lopsided losses to both Old Dominion and Virginia. In their opener, the Lancers only lost by 13 to the Cavaliers in Charlottesville, but the score line appears a lot more merciful than the actual game—the Lancers trailed by 22 early in the second half and never closed within 10 after the break. Yet Lions’ head coach Joe Jones may find reason to worry in the game sandwiched between those two underwhelming efforts, a closely contested 79-76 home loss to Navy.
Jones expects to see the Lancers come out and trap, trying to disrupt the Lions’ offensive set: “They’re not going to let you run your offense. They’re going to trap a first pass, they’re going to trap a ball screen, or they’re just going to run at you.” A major factor in deciding tomorrow night’s game may be how fast the Light Blue offense can gel in light of their injury problems in the offseason. In spite of the fact that they haven’t had much time out on the floor together, Jones says, “We’re going to have to take a step in, in terms of our offensive execution. There’s some catching up we got to do.”
No matter what, coach Jones and the Lions will likely key in on two key players: stocky six-foot-six post player Antwan Carter and six-foot-five Dana Smith, who’s listed as being able to play both guard and forward. Carter is Longwood’s leading scorer—despite his diminutive stature he posted 18 and 20 point games against Virginia and Old Dominion, respectively. Yet despite the fact that Carter is averaging nearly 17 points a game, the versatile Smith may create more of a matchup problem for the Lions.
The redshirt senior’s size puts coach Jones in a tricky spot in deciding who will guard him. Jones explained the dilemma, saying, “He’s a kid that could give us some issues because he’s an undersized forward, so he’s more like a guard.” His solution is the junior transfer, Brian Grimes. Jones expects Grimes to use his strength and athleticism to overpower Smith on the offensive end.
However, he continued, “Then Brian can’t get in foul trouble on this guy because he’s going off the dribble. He’s a very good player—he’s the one guy I’m concerned about.”
The six-foot-six Carter should prove easier to deal with considering both Asenso Ampim and Grimes can usually be found patrolling the paint for the Lions. Both Ampim and Grimes have the strength and size to deal with Carter, although he cannot be discounted due to the impressive numbers he has posted against two quality opponents.
Yet it was Smith who led the way with 22 points and 11 rebounds against Navy, in the one game where Longwood proved competitive. And if Columbia wants to prevent a similar performance from taking place on Friday in Levien Gym, the squad will need Grimes to be aggressive offensively while moving his feet and avoiding silly fouls on defense against the quicker, smaller Smith.
Despite the Lions’ 59-53 slugfest of an opener, coach Jones is adamant that “We’re not going to play a slow-down game.” Instead, he says, “We want to take the advantage when it’s there. We want to push the ball in transition, but we also just want to be smart about what we’re doing.” Expect a talented Columbia roster to open it up a little in the home opener. And with the likes of Grimes, Agho, and a resurgent Foley on the floor, the Lions should be too much for Longwood, despite any matchup problems it may cause.