Sports | Sports Columns

YOUNG: Men’s basketball proved naysayers wrong

  • Kiera Wood / Senior Staff Photographer
    Player of the Year? | Junior forward Alex Rosenberg emerged as a bona fide star for the Lions this season.

Two years ago, the future of Columbia men’s basketball seemed to be outlined pretty clearly in my eyes. With an improving team, led by senior Brian Barbour, facing a weaker league than usual, the 2012-2013 team would finally be the one to compete for the title. The 2013-2014 season would just be a time for transition, possibly even for the Lions to bottom out again. Then last season happened, unfortunately. A forgettable 14-game tournament brought nothing but disappointing losses and a 4-10 league record. 

It was easy to understand the doubters, who had the Lions pegged for last place in the Ivy League preseason poll last October.

The doubters felt the senior-less team would be too inexperienced after the loss of last year’s captains, Barbour and his fellow seniors Dean Kowalski and Mark Cisco.

But Columbia never once looked unprepared or overwhelmed in any of its games through the end of February, even coming minutes short of knocking off then-No. 2 Michigan State in East Lansing just three games into its season.

The doubters (including me, just two columns ago) said that this team lacked that one go-to player whom each of the other Ancient Eight teams possessed.

But junior forward Alex Rosenberg emerged as an Ivy League Player of the Year candidate, scoring in double digits in each of his final 24 games to lead the Ivy League in points—unless Princeton’s T.J. Bray scores 23 points against Penn in Tuesday’s Ivy finale—and earning a program-record four Player of the Week awards. He tried to will Columbia to victory during its early struggles and then put his multiple offensive weapons on display during its hot streak. He was one three shy of pitching a perfect game at Dartmouth, and his aggressive style nearly led him to a Columbia record in free throws made in a season.

The doubters wondered if this team would ever have the ability to pull out close games again.

But Columbia won two games in conference play that came down to the final possession.

The doubters questioned how this team, unpredictable last year partly thanks to its reliance on long-distance shots, could possibly be consistent this season.

But the Light Blue swept an Ivy weekend and won four Ivy games in a row for the first time in five years. Its persistent attack from beyond the arc shattered the program record for three-pointers in a season.

The doubters looked at the last couple of decades of Columbia basketball and assumed some things would just never change.

But the Lions won at Princeton for the first time in 21 years and established a true home-court advantage, losing only three times at home all season.

Ultimately, Columbia finished in the top half of the conference with an 8-6 record, doubling its win total from last season and earning its best league mark in 21 years. It is also likely heading to its first postseason tournament in decades.

It was pretty incredible to be in the middle of the celebratory atmosphere at Harvard nine days ago, as the Crimson clinched its fourth straight title. Through my experience and attendance this year, Levien’s was the only atmosphere around the league that could compare.

While it may be fun to look back at all the program history made this year, it is even more fun to look into the future. Such a campaign will only help recruiting, and without losing any seniors, next year should only be brighter. The early projection is likely a three-way race between Harvard, Yale, and Columbia (although we have learned that expectations aren’t the be-all end-all). And as the campus continues to embrace this team, I can only imagine what it will be like if the Lions can end nearly five decades of Ivy frustration.

But all that frustration makes me understand the cynics and doubters. Thus, on behalf of optimists and doubters alike, I think we would all say the same thing after this season: Thank you.

Thanks to men’s basketball for the fun this season. Thanks for turning doubters into believers. Thanks for giving us true, rational hope—a rare commodity at Columbia, and one that we all get to treasure for the rest of 2014.

Ryan Young is a Columbia College junior majoring in economics-statistics. He is a sports broadcaster for WKCR. Roar Ryan Roar runs biweekly.


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ronkapon posted on

Well said. Great coaching staff and players that are fun to watch. Can't wait until next year.

menckenman posted on

Well said, indeed. The team exceeded all expectations and gave us a great experience this season. Congratulations to them and the coach.

On another level, the season can be looked upon in several ways. First, in the blush of the spirit of this column, whereupon we smile and feel vindication because of our achievement and our expectations for next season. May they bring us a championship.
Conversely, we can still take some satisfaction in outperforming predictions, but recognize that our finish, while laudable, still puts us pretty much in the middle of the pack of Ivy contenders. Which begs the question, have our athletic expectations at CU fallen so far that a mediocre league standing generates this euphoria? Our expectation should be to seriously compete for the title every year. Sorry to be a wet blanket, but someone needs to point out the nude emperor.
This has nothing to do with the current team and coach, but rather with the historic disrespect and neglect of CU sports in general. Until that ends, the occasional bright spot of this season will continue to be an anomaly.

John Houseman posted on

Coach Smith and the players have created a program of which we can all be proud. And they've done it the slow, old-fashioned way, brick by brick, recruit by recruit.

But anybody who thinks that next year will be a "race" between Harvard and anybody is delusional. The Crimson are simply that much better than any Ivy competitor. Harvard, too, has built their dominant dynasty the old-fashioned way; they admitted a lot more low AI recruits than anybody else.

Anonymous posted on

Ryan, why are you saying that the basketball season is over? Our Lions deserve to be invited to a post-season tournament. There are several excellent tournaments and Columbia is likely to be considered for one or more of them along with Princeton, Yale and maybe Brown. However, we are the only Ivy League school in New York City which of course is the media capital of the world. Therefore we have an advantage over our Ivy League opponents as all of the tournaments would love to have more media attention. The favorable publicity would also do wonders for Columbia Athletics in general and the basketball program in particular. However, an invitation will not be extended to Columbia unless the right buttons are pushed immediately by the right people on campus. I urge you and your Spec colleagues to campaign vigorously to make that happen.

Richard Szathmary, C'67 posted on

Nice, very well-written and upbeat column. The sports coverage in Spec always strikes me as well done and balanced. Quite a change from the relentless anti-jock attitude so obvious round my own academic years.