It’s been five and a half months since Kyle Smith was named the Lions’ new basketball coach, and this weekend the Light Blue faithful will get their first look at his squad on the hardwood.
Columbia will travel to LaSalle on Friday to face the Explorers in Tom Gola Arena. The trip to Philadelphia will be a homecoming of sorts for Lions power forward Brian Grimes, who grew up in the area and attended LaSalle as a freshman before transferring to Columbia.
“I live about five minutes from LaSalle, so it’ll be good to go back. A lot of family will be there, and I know a lot of the guys there—you know, big brothers from my time there,” Grimes said. At the same time, he added, “I’m just reading it as another game.”
Expect Grimes to start alongside center Mark Cisco in the frontcourt for the Light Blue. Cisco will have his hands full against the Explorers’ top threat, sophomore big man Aaric Murray. As a freshman, Murray earned Philadelphia Big 5 Rookie of the Year honors, and he enters this season as a preseason selection to the All-Atlantic 10 third team. Last year he scored 12.2 points per game while grabbing 6.6 boards and recording 2.3 blocks, and scouts have noted his potential to be a truly dominant presence in the paint. The 6-foot-10 center was rated by ESPN’s Chad Ford as the fourth-best NCAA prospect in a non-Bowl Championship Series league and the 33rd overall prospect in the class.
Columbia’s ability to contain Murray on offense and get to the basket around him on the other end will figure heavily in deciding the game’s outcome. Cisco will not be alone under the bucket, though, as the Light Blue boasts a particularly deep frontcourt. Aside from Grimes, Smith can look to forwards John Daniels and Asenso Ampim to put in solid minutes for the Lions, and seven-footers Max Craig and Zack Crimmins will aim to use their size against Murray. Ampim’s athleticism and Daniels’ grit should prove helpful in winning the battle in the paint.
“They are very long and athletic,” Smith said in an interview this week. “We’re going to have to do a good job of keeping them off the boards—they’re a really good rebounding team.”
“We just really need to limit their second-chance point,” Daniels added.
Both Ampim and Grimes have been battling injuries, leaving the possibility that Daniels will find himself in the starting lineup alongside Cisco. But no matter who starts, Smith feels comfortable with the team’s depth up front.
“Our inside people, I think top to bottom, are pretty good,” he said. “I think we have the size where other Ivy League teams may not, and I think we’ll be able to compete that way. Mark Cisco has been very good, and John Daniels—I think he’s always going to be a very consistent performer as far as he understands what he can do, which is important as a coach.”
Discussing Grimes and Ampim, Smith noted that both have shown their potential after lengthy layoffs. “There’s rust there, but, you know, you obviously see the talent. It’s only been three weeks, and they’ve been out for a long time, so I expect them to just keep coming on and getting better and better.”
In the backcourt, expect to see last season’s leading scorer, junior Noruwa Agho, line up next to sophomore Brian Barbour. As a sophomore, Agho exploded onto the scene for the Lions, averaging 16.3 points per game and leading the nation in three-point field goal percentage for a large part of the season. He will be the Explorers’ main focus defensively, and how successful he is in dealing with the extra attention will go a long way toward determining Columbia’s fate on Friday night.
“He’s going to be important for us,” Smith said. “I don’t think that’s any secret.”
Alongside Agho, Barbour is a savvy playmaker who will look to create more opportunities for his backcourt partner as he takes over the Lions’ offensive reins after the graduation of senior guards Patrick Foley and Kevin Bulger.
Barbour figures to play a major role for the Lions this season. “I know he is a good guy and is doing things right, just early on in practice as a point guard,” Smith said. “We have a lot of guards, but we don’t have a lot of points guards, so I think he’ll be important to us.”
Newcomer Steve Frankoski, a highly touted long-range shooter, may find himself in the starting lineup as well. A McDonald’s All-American nominee as a high school player, Frankoski was named the New Jersey Prep Class A Player of the Year after a postgraduate year at the Peddie School. The lanky guard has shown deadly accuracy from downtown, and he should be able to knock down open shots should the Explorers collapse on Agho or Barbour.
Junior guard Steve Egee—a proven shooter himself—will also play an important role in the backcourt against LaSalle, as will senior Matt Johnson, a 6-foot-7 guard who can wreak havoc on opposing offenses with his hustle on defense.
For LaSalle, Ruben Guillandeaux returns to the lineup after sitting out last season with a medical redshirt. He appeared in four games before his injury, averaging 9.5 points and shooting a red-hot 61.5 percent from three-point range. Smith’s defense will have to be careful not to leave him open on the perimeter as it tries to neutralize Murray inside.
It will only be a short bus ride to Philadelphia, but it has been a long road for Smith and his team in getting here. Friday night will be a small but revealing indicator of the direction they are heading this year.
“LaSalle is a very aggressive team who is going to the glass, so we have to make sure we rebound well,” Agho said. “But if we run our stuff properly on offense, if we defend the way we’ve been taught, at the end of the day, we’ll be able to look at the scoreboard and be happy with the result.”