After the Lions beat Cornell in their Ivy League opener, head coach Kyle Smith reflected on the emergence of sophomore point guard Brian Barbour and sophomore center Mark Cisco. With the two working in conjunction with junior Noruwa Agho, the team’s leading scorer over the past two years, Smith had found himself a formidable trio.
“Those three guys, going forward—they’ll be guys you can count on every night,” Smith told Spectator at the time.
He could not have known how right Barbour would prove him in the very next game. At Cornell the following weekend, the 6-foot-1 Alamo, Calif., native took matters into his own hands in posting a career-high 23 points, including several late baskets and a clutch string of free throws to ice the game. The 70-66 win snapped the three-time defending Ivy League champions’ 22-game home conference winning streak.
The weekend before, Barbour matched his previous career high with 21 points in a home win over the Big Red. His scoring touch has helped lift the Lions in their past two contests, but it has been his maturation as a player overall that has helped his team exceed expectations in a big way.
During the 2009-2010 season, Columbia won a total of 11 games. This year, the team’s 11th win came with 12 games left to play, when the Light Blue downed Cornell on Saturday to start the Ivy schedule 2-0 for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.
A big reason for that success has been the man pulling the strings for the Lions’ offense. In his first year starting as Columbia’s floor general, Barbour has averaged 12.9 points and four assists per game while leading the team in steals with 20. With him at the reins, the Lions lead the Ivy League in scoring with 74.2 points per game.
Barbour’s scoring bursts against Cornell have vindicated his first-year coach’s longstanding confidence in his point guard.
“Playing for a guy who has faith in you and believes in you really is huge,” Barbour said. “At the beginning of the year, I was playing pretty tentative, and he [Smith] came up to me and said, you know, ‘They’re going to pressure up on Noruwa and Frank [freshman guard Steve Frankoski] a lot, so you’re going to need to be a little more aggressive.’ I’ve just kind of stepped in and filled that void, particularly when they [other teams] overplay on Noruwa and Frank.”
Over the past six games, Barbour has averaged 17.7 points per game. More impressively, his assists have not dropped off as he has begun to look for his own shots. As compared to 3.7 assists per game in the first 10 games, he has averaged 3.8 in the last six.
“I’m never trying to put up large numbers or anything,” Barbour said. “I’m just trying to help our team win. Some nights I’m going to be more of a scorer, and some nights I’m just going to be a facilitator.”
The evolution of the Lions’ offense has not always been smooth, but their ability to adapt has made them hard to beat thus far. Columbia has won 10 of its last 12 games, eight of its last nine, and its last four in a row.
Barbour’s play has not gone unnoticed by his teammates, particularly those who are now getting some open looks as teams realize the threat Barbour poses as a scorer.
“He’s playing great,” Agho said after the Cornell game. “He’s making all the right plays, and he gets me some open shots, too.”
“He’s got a strong belief [in himself]. He’s always had success. In high school, he competed at a high level and was very successful,” Smith said, referring to Barbour’s time at Monte Vista High School, where he was a four-year letter winner and a two-time captain. He was an ESPN/Rivals Division I all-state selection as a senior, and the San Francisco Chronicle named him regional player of the year.
Smith, who was the associate head coach at St. Mary’s in California at the time, saw Barbour’s potential and recruited him to play for the Gaels. The two developed a close relationship during the recruiting process, one that nearly kept Barbour on the west coast for his collegiate career.
“I was very close to going to St. Mary’s out of high school,” Barbour said. “It was a little close for me, but Coach Smith was the reason. We talked a lot during my junior year, just talking constantly. From our past relationship, I couldn’t have been more excited when he got the job.”
Now that Smith has a chance to watch Barbour play every day, he doesn’t see any reason why his young point guard can’t continue to build on his success.
“His preparation for practice and games is excellent, so he’ll keep improving because he has a great work ethic,” Smith said.
Particularly given what the squad has shown so far this season, that can only be music to the ears of Light Blue fans everywhere.