Traveling to and from six Ivy League schools in three weekends will always answer some questions for you. Are two trips to Ithaca sufficient for a lifetime? (Yes.) Is the greatest feeling in the world traveling east on a (traffic-free) George Washington Bridge back to your campus? (Absolutely.)
Having had the privilege of being the only non-member of the Columbia men’s basketball team to travel to each of its last five games (from what I can tell), I had some questions about this Light Blue team answered as well.
The biggest question coming into league play was whether Columbia would be able to play successful interior defense. Unfortunately, that has been a struggle.
In the first game of the recently concluded road stretch at Cornell, junior center Cory Osetkowski dominated unlike any other Lion has done in an Ivy contest this season. He was unstoppable in the paint on both sides of the court, collecting 19 points, nine rebounds, and five blocks. But the last two weekends proved to be far more challenging, and his matchup with Penn’s Fran Dougherty on Saturday was difficult to watch.
St. John’s coach Steve Lavin remarked after his team’s win over the Lions in December that Columbia was the biggest team he had played all year. While the Light Blue may have some height, that alone does not seem to be working for them—recently, first-year forward Jeff Coby and sophomore forward Zach En’Wezoh have been subbed in often for the 6-foot-11 Osetkowski and 6-foot-10 first-year forward Luke Petrasek.
This issue is glaring because the likes of Yale’s Justin Sears, Brown’s Rafael Maia, and Dougherty single-handedly lifted their teams to victory over Columbia in the last two weeks by using their size and athleticism to easily go straight to the hoop.
This in turn outlines another problem for the Lions: They lack one dominant force. Offensively, junior forward Alex Rosenberg has been the most confident and aggressive attacker for Columbia. Sophomore guards Maodo Lo and Grant Mullins are right behind Rosenberg in terms of scoring, but have not shown the same aggressiveness or dominance. Without the single dominant presence that the Light Blue’s league foes possess, it becomes more important for all three players to be effective and in sync for the Lions—hence the team’s struggles without one of them—Mullins—at the Palestra.
Often, Columbia’s flaws have shown at the beginnings of games, when the team has dug big holes for itself, but its comebacks have shown how this team has grown over the past few years. And nothing emphasizes that more than what happened at Jadwin Gym on Friday night.
The Lions were able to stymie the Tigers on defense in the second half and erase a 13-point deficit (thanks in part to Princeton’s reliance on long-distance shots). Down by five with less than 90 seconds remaining, Columbia got lucky on sophomore guard Isaac Cohen’s three-pointer, which bounced in. A shrewd play by Rosenberg to force a jump ball with 31 seconds remaining, giving Columbia the ball, and then a well-designed catch-and-shoot three for junior guard Meiko Lyles allowed the Lions to take the lead, which held on the other end of the floor.
The whole sequence felt surreal considering it had been years since Columbia pulled out an Ivy victory on a game-winning shot. In fact, it was the first win at Princeton since 1993. Snapping the 20-game losing streak against the Tigers at Jadwin—with game planning, skill, or luck—was enough to prove this team is different from last year’s.
The Light Blue was dealt a tough hand with its early schedule, but it has flashed the ability that it displayed in the second half at Princeton on multiple occasions. It’s not hard to root for a young and likable team that still has plenty to play for. Even if the Ivy title is not in play, the difference between seven and nine wins is significant in terms of displaying progress and a potential postseason tournament bid.
So let me answer one final question. Is it worth postponing your Valentine’s Day plans to watch this team battle Harvard?
Ryan Young is a Columbia College junior majoring in economics-statistics. He is a sports broadcaster for WKCR. Roar Ryan Roar runs biweekly.