Men's basketball, riding a six-game winning streak, is off to a perfect 2-0 start in league play.
But at halftime last Saturday, in Ithaca, N.Y., there was reason for concern. The Lions trailed Cornell—which has yet to beat a Division I team—35-32 after 20 minutes, and were flirting with the possibility of replicating last year's 1-1 start against the Big Red.
In 2012-13, Columbia beat its Empire State rival to start Ivy play but failed to overcome a halftime deficit the next weekend at home. Then-senior center Mark Cisco scored just six points as the Lions were outgunned in the paint.
A year later, Columbia came back with a vengeance, executing down the stretch to secure a double-digit win. While much has been made of the sophomore guard trio of Grant Mullins, Maodo Lo, and Isaac Cohen—who between them lead the team in most statistical categories—it was the Lion frontcourt that stood out last weekend.
Junior center Cory Osetkowski delivered a particularly strong performance.
“Last game was obviously his best game of the year,” Lion head coach Kyle Smith said of Osetkowski's 19-point, nine-rebound outing.
Together with Osetkowski, first-year forward Luke Petrasek and junior forward Alex Rosenberg form the Lion core down low. Rosenberg has been one of the Ivy League's top players over the last month, garnering two Ivy Player of the Week awards, and Petrasek has also earned his share of weekly honors.
Smith said he hopes that Saturday's game will mark a turning point for the 6-foot-11 Osetkowski and add another dimension to Columbia's post game.
“Hopefully that was a breakthrough for him confidence-wise,” Smith said. “That's been his challenge—to be more assertive, to assert himself on the block and around the rim.”
In a league featuring a number of capable big men, Osetkowski could be an invaluable asset for Columbia.
Beyond Columbia's three leading big men, the team's own post depth has been an area of concern amid a barrage of injuries.
First-year forward Jeff Coby—whose best performance came in a loss to Portland, in which he scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds—missed a good deal of playing time in the nonconference season due to a stress fracture in his foot. Knee issues have likewise limited sophomore forward Zach En'Wezoh's minutes, and first-year forward Chris McComber has yet to see any action due to mononucleosis.
“We need Zach, we need Jeff, we need Cory,” Smith said, noting that this weekend's games against Yale and Brown will pose the first of many stiff tests for the Light Blue big men.
Bulldog forward Justin Sears is averaging 15.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, while Bear forwards Rafael Maia and Cedric Kuakumensah are also two of the league's premier post players. Maia is the conference's second-leading rebounder, and Kuakumensah is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
And Brown and Yale are just the first two opponents.
“Both those teams, and Harvard, when we get to them—and Penn, same deal—especially in those back-to-backs you're gonna need the depth,” Smith said.
Taking into account the fact that both Petrasek and Rosenberg spend a lot of time on the perimeter, the Lions will need Osetkowski and the bench players to make valuable contributions around the net.
Smith has emphasized throughout the season that freeing up Rosenberg in particular to play outside more is a priority for the Light Blue, adding that quality minutes from Coby and En'Wezoh would help the Lions avoid having to rely on Rosenberg as much at power forward.
The Lions have a great backcourt and lights-out shooting from long range, but they will need their forwards and centers to step up to be contenders in the Ivy League. If teams—like Cornell last Saturday—take away the three from Columbia, Osetkowski's performance has shown how much of a difference a presence down low can make.
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