Columbia will look to extend its home winning streak to five when a struggling Bryant squad comes to Levien Gymnasium on Saturday. With a win over the Bulldogs (1-7), the Lions (5-4) will head into the holiday break on a three-game win streak after close victories over Stony Brook and Wagner in their past two outings.
Both those games were in the friendly confines of Levien, where Columbia is a perfect 4-0 in the 2010-2011 campaign. Head coach Kyle Smith thinks the home-court advantage has been particularly helpful given the team’s reliance on young players—freshman sharpshooter Steve Frankoski starts at shooting guard, and freshmen Dyami Starks and Van Green are the first guards off the bench. Sophomore point guard Brian Barbour is also in his first season as a starter.
“With three freshmen, I hate to say there’s a difference [playing at home], but there is a difference for the young guys,” Smith said. “We’re just more comfortable. Even some of our older guys are playing better at home. It’s nice to hear people cheering for you, … it helps.”
When successful this year, the Light Blue has relied on a simple yet effective formula: let the backcourt score and the frontcourt crash the boards. Junior guard Noruwa Agho leads the squad with 15.7 points per game, and the next three top scorers for the Lions are guards—Barbour, Frankoski, and Starks.
Those three have become increasingly important to Smith’s squad success, as teams have become more and more aware of the threat Agho poses offensively. The team’s leading scorer last year and a preseason first team all-Ivy selection, Agho has been forced to become more of a playmaker this year in the face of increased defensive pressure. In each of the last three games, Frankowski has made the opposition pay for concentrating on Agho, leading the team with 12 points, 21 points, and 12 points, respectively, the past three games. Agho has not stopped scoring himself, posting double-digit point totals in all three games, but he has deferred to teammates for the most part, contributing a total of 22 assists in those three contests.
Meanwhile, senior forwards Brian Grimes and Asenso Ampim lead Columbia in rebounding with 8.6 and 8.2 rebounds per game, respectively. Tuesday’s outing versus Wagner was another example of the clear advantage Columbia has enjoyed on the glass this year—the Lions outrebounded the Seahawks 39-19 and pulled down 13 offensive boards to the visitors’ six. The Light Blue has outrebounded its opposition in all but one of its nine games so far this season.
Where those rebounds have come from has changed this year—Columbia’s depth in the post is one of its strengths. Grimes and senior Max Craig have started all nine games, but Ampim, sophomore Mark Cisco, and sophomore John Daniels have all seen substantial minutes nearly every game as well.
Daniels particularly has lifted the team late in games at the power forward spot, coming up big late with the winning free throw in a 73-72 win over Stony Brook and another clutch pair against Wagner with less than a minute to go.
Early in the game, though, it has been Grimes leading the way. He came out of the gate strong in each of the past two games, scoring the Lions’ first seven points against Stony Brook. He is still getting back into shape after a serious leg injury and an extended recovery period, contributing to his difficulty keeping up that kind of production throughout games.
“I think he’s been really effective early. The only thing with him has been his health. When he’s fresh he can give you really good minutes,” Smith said. “Second half it’s been hard, and his production second half hasn’t been good, and I just attribute that to the rust and the conditioning after the micro-fracture surgery and being out six months.”
Bryant may look to force Columbia into a faster-paced game than the Lions are used to. Up-and-down games are nothing new for Smith, though, who coached a high-tempo system at St. Mary’s as an assistant for the previous nine seasons.
“We’re pretty good when we’re running, too,” Smith said. “I’m a little leery of being an up-tempo Ivy League team, but it’s what I know. We’re playing so young—we play three freshmen on the perimeter and a sophomore.”
Despite their youth though, Smith’s players have shown they can be successful in the open court—two of the Light Blue’s toughest opponents have been La Salle and St. John’s, two programs known for quickening the pace.
“We ran with La Salle, and we were up 14,” Smith said. “We weren’t afraid against St. John’s, and we had some success against them.”
Bryant, who is coming off a 73-55 loss to Yale and has dropped five straight, does not have nearly the pedigree either La Salle or St. John’s has. The Bulldogs did give Harvard, picked to finish second in the Ivy League this year, all it could handle earlier this year before falling to the Crimson 69-66.
Sophomore guard Frankie Dobbs leads Bryant with 15.0 points per game, while freshman Alex Francis tops the squad with 7.6 rebounds per game. Francis also contributes 12.4 points per game, while senior forward Cecil Gresham averages 10.9.
The Lions’ success on Saturday should depend on their own play, though. If the young backcourt can stay composed—as they did against Wagner’s high pressure on Tuesday—and the deep frontcourt can continue to give Columbia second-chance opportunities, the Light Blue should be well on its way to a fifth straight win at Levien. Tip-off is scheduled for 4 p.m.