A strong nonconference season and a 2-0 start to Ivy play placed the men's basketball team (14-9, 3-3 Ivy) in prime position to contend for the Ivy title this season.
But a rough road stretch during which the Lions went 2-3 diminished Columbia’s hopes of adding to its 1968 conference championship—the only title in program history. The Light Blue’s three Ivy losses also exposed one of the team’s biggest weaknesses—interior defense.
In all three games, opponents’ big men gave Columbia fits down low. Yale forward Justin Sears dropped 22 on the Lions in a 69-59 Bulldog win. The following night, Brown forward Rafael Maia stole the show, netting 18 points to go along with 12 rebounds as Columbia fell, 64-56.
And though the Lions picked up a big win at Princeton the following weekend, Quaker forward Fran Dougherty’s 23-point, 12-rebound performance the night after led Penn to a 68-60 victory over Columbia at the Palestra.
“The way our defense is designed, usually we think we can hold it down one-on-one in there,” Columbia head coach Kyle Smith said. “But we’re going to have to look into doing some other things. Maybe more zone, maybe more cover-down.”
Smith had high praise for the big men the Lions have encountered so far in Ivy play, calling them “the best big guys I think we’ve seen, with the exception of [Michigan State center] Adreian Payne.”
The size and strength of the likes of Sears, Maia, and Dougherty have certainly proved to be hard for the Light Blue to handle. First-year forward Luke Petrasek, who had a very strong nonconference season, has been getting “knocked around a little bit” defensively in league play, according to Smith.
The Lions have also been forced to rely heavily on junior center Cory Osetkowski, who leads the team in offensive rebounds and is tied with Petrasek for the team lead in blocks. Osetkowski has also had his share of off games, including the game at Princeton in which he played just eight minutes against a quicker lineup.
“He’s had some up-and-down moments, but if we’re going be the best we can be, he’s got to step up for us,” Smith said.
Smith has also voiced concern about having junior forward Alex Rosenberg play extended minutes down low on defense.
But some of the younger players have demonstrated that, with time, they will take some of the pressure off Petrasek, Osetkowski, and Rosenberg.
First-year Jeff Coby played significant minutes against Princeton, and he was a big reason Columbia was able to hold Tiger forward Hans Brase scoreless in the second half of Friday’s 53-52 win. Smith also pointed to a pair of first-years—center Conor Voss and forward Chris McComber—as players who could be big for the Lions going forward.
“I don’t know if he’s all the way ready, but he’s physical,” Smith said of Voss. “I think Chris McComber—he missed about eight weeks, so he’s just behind—but he’s got that kind of body that can help.”
But according to Smith, sophomore forward Zach En’Wezoh, who has played limited minutes while struggling with knee issues, may be the key for Columbia’s interior defense.
“Zach seems like the most likely candidate to help us so we’re not getting knocked around or pushed back,” Smith said, adding that En’Wezoh “played really well against Penn.”
Though he is listed as a guard, sophomore Isaac Cohen also has been a major contributor for the Lions down low, and he leads the team in rebounds with an average of 4.8 per game.
The Lions could have done better on the road the last few weekends, but in the upcoming weeks they will no longer have to face a grueling travel schedule. But when they do finally take to the court at Levien Gym against Harvard this Friday, they will need to bring a new look around the basket on the defensive side of the ball.