If a “close game” is a game in which the teams are separated by five points or fewer at any point during the final three minutes of regulation, then last season, the men’s basketball team was 1-13 in close games, including 0-8 in Ivy play.
This year, the Lions (17-10, 6-4 Ivy) are 6-8 in close games, including 2-3 in conference play. The improvement is a big reason why the team has a chance to finish in the top half of the conference and secure its first 20-win season in 44 years.
While some improvement from that 1-13 mark may have been expected based on chance alone, Light Blue head coach Kyle Smith said there were some tangible reasons for the improvement as well.
“As a staff, we said—[associate head] coach [Carlin] Hartman is largely responsible for that—really said we gotta get mentally tough,” Smith said. “Part of it is you gottta feel like you deserve to win.”
He said that the plan was for the team to work harder off the court—specifically, in the weight room, improving stamina and conditioning—to become a tougher, grittier team.
“It’s that 1 percent improvement that might be the difference between winning the Brown game or giving yourself a chance to win that Harvard game,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s true. We’ll see how we finish out.”
But training hasn’t been the only reason for improvement.
Smith said last year that one reason why the Lions couldn’t pull out wins in their tight contests was that they were so reliant on All-Ivy point guard Brian Barbour, CC ’13, to run the offense. Deeper opponents could give Barbour different looks defensively late in the game—Smith pointed to the example of Princeton in the 2011-12 season—and a fatigued 6-foot-1, 175-pound Barbour would not always be physically able to find another gear to his game.
Now, even with sophomore guard Grant Mullins still not fully recovered from a concussion, the team is deeper than it was in the past two years. Sophomores Maodo Lo and Isaac Cohen and juniors Meiko Lyles and Steve Frankoski have all been starters at some point in their college careers, and all four are currently trusted with plenty of minutes in the backcourt. Up front, first-years Conor Voss, Jeff Coby, and Luke Petrasek, as well as sophomore Zach En’Wezoh, have given the Lions useful play off the bench as well.
“I think Coach Hartman … had a lot of control in that stuff,” Smith said. “He usually takes the second team and those younger guys and makes sure they’re tough and ready to roll.”
The other prominent factor has been the All-Ivy-caliber play of junior forward Alex Rosenberg, the Ancient Eight’s top scorer in conference play this season. While Rosenberg scores a good deal of his points off free throws—he’s tied for 10th in the country in free throws made—he has also come up with his fair share of important shots. At Elon in December, he hit the game-tying three with only tenths of a second to go, sending the game into overtime. Against Harvard two weeks ago, he scored 34 points and had a potential game-winning basket controversially called off. Against Yale over the weekend, he scored 15 points in the second half as the Lions were able to pull away from the Elis, who were tied for first at the time.
“When the chips have been down, he’s dug in there and found a gear,” Smith said. “He’s got a little alpha dog to him. … You need that.”
Smith added, though, that as defenses key in on Rosenberg more and more, he’ll need to make sure he passes the ball out rather than driving into traffic.
“As a team, we gotta understand that other players are going to have better opportunities,” he said.
This weekend, Columbia will face Harvard and Dartmouth. Four of Columbia’s last five meetings against each team has been a close game. Given that, the Lions will likely need to take advantage of those opportunities to come out on top and keep their Ivy hopes alive.
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