The term “must-win game” is often used as a synonym for an important matchup. But this weekend, the men’s basketball team (17-10, 6-4 Ivy) faces a pair of true must-win affairs, at Dartmouth (9-15, 2-8 Ivy) on Friday and Harvard (22-4, 9-1 Ivy) on Saturday.
Although Columbia (17-10, 6-4 Ivy) only has an extremely small chance to take the Ivy championship, it is still mathematically possible. But that could change as soon as Friday night. While the Lions visit Dartmouth, the Crimson hosts Cornell, one of the worst teams in Division I. A Columbia loss coupled with two Yale wins or a single Harvard win would result in the Light Blue’s elimination from Ivy title contention.
“This time of year is really hard. ... You do get affected by it. It takes a little bit out of you,” Lion head coach Kyle Smith said of keeping tabs on other team’s games, especially those with standings implications for Columbia. “Don’t let your concentration get split up and divided.”
While the Big Green has finished better than sixth in the conference standings only once since 2005, it has given Columbia a serious run for its money recently—regardless of whether the teams play in New York or in Hanover, N.H. Four of the last five meetings have been decided by six points or fewer.
The exception, though, was the game earlier this season. Sophomore guard Maodo Lo scored 22 points and shut down Big Green sharpshooting guard Alex Mitola for most of the game.
“You slip for a second, and he takes advantage,” Smith said of Mitola.
Aside from its star guard, Dartmouth’s strength is in the frontcourt even without Gabas Maldunas, the Ivy League’s top rebounder, who is out for the season.
“I think they’re the toughest, scrappiest team in the league,” Smith said. “It’s going to be physically tough. I just think the team that comes in there mentally right will have the best chance Friday night.”
Against the talented Crimson, it’s a different story. While Columbia’s recent meetings against Harvard have gone down to the wire—in the last two years, the Crimson won each meeting in Cambridge, Mass., by five points, and won two of three games in New York in overtime—Smith pointed to tactics, not the mental side of the game, as the key.
“I think we can compete with them,” Smith said of Harvard. “It’s not giving them the foul shots. That’s one of the most efficient ways of scoring.”
Smith added that the Light Blue needs to do a better job handling Harvard’s four-guard lineup. While center Steve Moundou-Missi and forward Kyle Casey usually start, along with swingman Wesley Saunders and guards Siyani Chambers and Laurent Rivard, head coach Tommy Amaker is willing to slide the do-it-all Saunders—who played very well at both ends of the floor against Columbia earlier this season—to the 4 in order to make room for former second-team All-Ivy guard Brandyn Curry. The four-guard lineup helped the Crimson earn its first win at Princeton in 35 years on Saturday.
“Saunders is a little bit like the [Yale forward Justin] Sears cover, or Mitola, in the sense that you can’t give him a steady pitch of one guy all the time,” Smith said. “They’re just good players. You’ve got to stay fresh.”
The Lions were able to limit Sears in their victory over Yale on Sunday. The sophomore shot only 3-for-9 from the field, and amid a dose of different defenders—first-year forwards Luke Petrasek and Jeff Coby, sophomore forward Zach En’Wezoh, and junior center Cory Osetkowski, to name a few—hardly looked like the individual who is a serious contender for Ivy Player of the Year.
The win over the Bulldogs also marked Columbia’s first weekend Ivy sweep since 2009. According to Smith, a home sweep was on the team’s list of goals for this season. He added that the primary focus for this weekend, though—aside from winning—is not solely based on results.
“The biggest goal for us is to keep getting better,” Smith said.
Tipoff for both games is slated for 7 p.m.