The Columbia men’s basketball team took a step backward last season, ending the year with a 5-9 Ivy League record after going .500 for three straight seasons. The drama didn’t end after the final buzzer, though. Seven-year head coach Joe Jones announced in early April that he would be leaving the team to serve as an associate head coach at Boston College under former Cornell head coach Steve Donahue.
Jones’ decision to leave Columbia came on the heels of a season that included a five-game losing streak, a series of debilitating injuries to key contributors, and a fifth-place finish in the conference.
The Lions kicked off the season by bouncing back from an opening loss at DePaul with consecutive home victories against Longwood and Bucknell. In that first week, sophomore guard Noruwa Agho emerged as Columbia’s offensive leader, going 11-12 from three-point land in the team’s two wins.
Nonconference play continued with losses to Syracuse and Sacred Heart, a close win over Lehigh, a three-point loss to Stony Brook, and road victories against Wagner and Bryant. A 63-51 loss to Quinnipiac in Hamden, Conn., carried the Lions into winter break.
At Christmas, the Lions were .500 and healthy. But by the time the league opener rolled around in mid-January, they had hit a rut and injuries were beginning to take a toll. Columbia lost three of four nonconference matchups over winter break, setting up an 0-3 start to league play. All three losses were of the blowout variety, and the first two came against Cornell, which went on to win the league and shock the country by reaching the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Championships.
Meanwhile, injuries were starting to add up and mess with Columbia’s game plan. First, senior guard Patrick Foley and junior forward Brian Grimes went down for short spans. Then Foley re-injured himself against Harvard and was relegated to the sidelines until the final two games of the season.
Columbia briefly recovered from the loss of its point guard, capturing home victories against Dartmouth and Brown, but a 1-4 skid in league play dropped the Lions to 3-7 in the Ivies. This rough patch included a 15-point loss to Yale at home, a 66-62 win at Penn, and road losses to Princeton, Dartmouth, and Harvard.
The Lions reached a high point in their next game, a home contest against Penn. Grimes drained a fadeaway jumper with 2.7 seconds left on the clock, sealing a 56-55 win and the Light Blue’s first season sweep over the Quakers since 1968.
Columbia then rounded out the season with losses to Princeton and Yale and a home victory against Brown. Jones left just over a month after the Lions’ season-ending league win.
Agho was the biggest story on the floor for the Lions, leading the team in minutes, field goals, three-pointers, free throws, steals, and scoring. He shot 42.5 percent from the field in the 2009-2010 season, including 58-130 from downtown. Niko Scott, another guard, also put up strong offensive numbers in his final season, shooting 44 percent and averaging 9.3 points per game.
Even with the loss of Foley, Scott, and Kevin Bulger to graduation, Columbia retains much of its core from last year heading into tomorrow’s opener. Agho has already established himself as one of the league’s elite players, and some of the younger Lions will be given opportunities to make a serious impact. Can they take advantage?