Sports | Men's Basketball

Men’s basketball exceeded expectations, overcame injuries to finish 3rd in Ivy League

  • Kiera Wood / Senior Staff Photographer
    Effective Contributor | Sophomore guard Isaac Cohen was one of the Light Blue's backcourt stalwarts this season.
  • Kiera Wood / Senior Staff Photographer
    Explosive Slasher | Junior forward Alex Rosenberg shined with his dynamic drives to the basket—especially in the absence of sophomore guard Grant Mullins.
  • Kiera Wood / Senior Staff Photographer
    Well-rounded Playmaker | Sophomore guard Maodo Lo remained effective in many different roles for the Lions.

This season, the men’s basketball team (19-12, 8-6 Ivy) finished with its most Ivy wins, best winning percentage, and best standing in the conference in two decades, and its most overall wins in over 40 years—a massive step forward for a young team that had graduated two starters.

Right from the start of the season, players and coaches said the preseason media poll—which pegged Columbia to finish last in the conference—was misguided.

“We’ve addressed it,” sophomore guard Grant Mullins said prior to the start of the season. “We use it as motivation.”

After dropping its second and third games of the season in familiar fashion to Manhattan and then-No. 2 Michigan State—close games blown in the final minutes—the Light Blue looked headed for another season full of competitive performances ending in losses instead of wins.

“There’s a lot of things we need to get better at,” head coach Kyle Smith said after the loss to the Spartans. “But to play the No. 1—well, probably will be the No. 1—team in the country down to the last couple minutes—have opportunities—should help us going forward.”

The close-game jitters went away and the Light Blue took off. The Lions closed nonconference play on a 10-4 run, either winning handily or losing on the road to a quality opponent, with the exception of an overtime win at Colgate. Columbia’s defense was generally top-notch and its three-point shooting, clicking at over 40 percent, of capable of putting away opponents regularly. And the Lions carried their strong play to the start of the conference season, sweeping Cornell.

After the Light Blue dropped road games against Brown and Yale, two opponents that matched up well against Columbia thanks to their strong inside games, the team went to Princeton, where it won for the first time in 21 years. But it also lost sophomore starting guard Grant Mullins to a concussion. 

Unlike last season, when illnesses and injuries in the backcourt sunk Columbia’s season, the 2014 Lions were able to pick up the slack in Mullins’ absence.

In the late stages of nonconference play, junior guard Meiko Lyles had been seeing more minutes, while junior guard Steve Frankoski, who sported a cast on his wrist until December, had been working his way back into the lineup. Junior forward Alex Rosenberg, who led the Ancient Eight in conference scoring, also had finally secured a permanent spot in the starting lineup.

Their increased contributions were critical in light of Mullins’ injury. 

Rosenberg averaged over 20 points per game over the remainder of the season despite more responsibilities, while sophomore starting guard Maodo Lo averaged 17. Lyles’ defensive work was key for Columbia on multiple occasions, including in the double-overtime loss to Harvard, and Frankoski started his best run of the season with two game-changing plays on loose balls the following night against Dartmouth, according to Smith.

“That’s what these Ivy League games come down to—just one or two of those plays which you gotta make,” Smith said after the win over the Big Green. 

Behind 41 points from Rosenberg, the Lions swept Brown and Yale at home for their first Ivy weekend sweep in five years. But they couldn’t put in a strong final two weekends, playing very well at Dartmouth and versus Penn but not really competitive at Harvard or versus Princeton, falling one win short of 20.

“This league is the Ancient Eight ... It’s so hard to break the status quo,” Smith said after the win over Penn. “It’s just making ourselves relevant.”

But Columbia finished tied for third in the conference standings and, barring unforeseen circumstances, should return its entire roster next year.

“I think the majority of us came from winning programs in high school,” Rosenberg said on Friday. “We want to win.”

muneeb.alam@columbiaspectator.com | @muneebalamcu

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