This season, just like every season since 1967-68, the Columbia men’s basketball team did not win the Ivy League to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. But the Lions did accept a bid to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, playing postseason basketball for the first time since that ’67-68 season. Two games in, it’s been a remarkable ride for Columbia in a season that’s already been replete with benchmarks.
It is somewhat obvious to describe the end of a college basketball team’s season as their “final exam”—but with no graduating seniors on the team, this season isn’t the end for this Light Blue squad. Along with what should be a talented first-year class—based on unofficial commitments—this team will enter the second year of a two-year course in college basketball with one final exam in mind: winning the Ivy League.
The first half of the syllabus contained some of the toughest lessons Professor Head Coach Kyle Smith could teach, and the Lions studied hard. The list is almost too long to count: how to take the No. 2 team in the country down to the final minute, how to win at Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium, how to put together a winning season in Ivy play, and how to turn Levien Gym into a fortress.
But the objective of the course—overcoming 45 years of history and winning the league—requires the Lions to keep learning. That’s why the CIT—a tournament that means very little in the national consciousness—is so important to Columbia. It’s the midterm, exposing the team to more situations it will need to succeed in if it is going to pass the class.
First, the Lions took a long road trip for their first round game against Valparaiso. Valpo is a talented team with a tournament pedigree, and they made the Lions work for every point.
With elimination and the end of the season on the line, the game came down to the last shot. Sophomore guard Maodo Lo worked the shot clock down, set up his defender, faked a drive, and drained a beautiful fadeaway from 19 feet out to win the game for Columbia, his entire team mobbing him in front of a stunned Indiana crowd. Winning under pressure: A.
Returning home for a game against Eastern Michigan University, the Lions faced another challenge. EMU’s intense 2-3 zone made running Smith’s usual offense nearly impossible, and each offensive possession was like trying to figure out a Rubik’s Cube. With Lo in early foul trouble it looked like the Lions had finally met one question they couldn’t answer.
But down 51-45 with 9:10 left in the game, Columbia suddenly got rolling. A three-pointer from junior forward Alex Rosenberg and an interception and layup from Lo sparked an incredible turnaround. Junior center Cory Osetkowski, who looked lost for a good portion of the game, turned it on, knocking down three big jumpers and finding the soft spots in the zone. Osetkowski, averaging 13.5 points per game in the last four games, is enjoying the best stretch of his career. A 14-0 run later, the Lions were firmly in control, going on to win by a final score of 69-56. Cracking a tough defense: A.
The CIT is more than just a test for the team, though. It’s a reward for the players, coaches, and—most of all—fans for an incredible year. In the wake of a disastrous football season which cast a toxic cloud over Columbia athletics, this lovable team has offered the community something to rally around.
I watched the first game with a group of friends on a shaky live stream, taking a break from spring break activities in North Carolina to watch Maodo and co. pull out the dramatic win. On Saturday, some of us left at 7:30 in the morning to drive nearly 500 miles to get back to Morningside in time for the electric EMU game. With most of the school still on break, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Saturday’s game had been relatively quiet. Instead, one of the best crowds I’ve ever seen in Levien showed up, rising to its feet at the start of Columbia’s second-half run and not sitting down until the final buzzer.
The energy behind this team is unbelievably exciting, and it’s not done yet. The next game of the CIT is on Wednesday night against an Ivy rival, the Yale Bulldogs, and I hope every blue bench seat is filled. Unlike most classes, BASK 4001’s test is open-book, and every full-throated voice will help the Lions pass.
I assure you—this is the most fun you’ll ever have at a midterm.
Peter Andrews is a Columbia College senior majoring in history. He is a member of Spectator’s editorial board, head manager emeritus of the Columbia University Marching Band, and a sports broadcaster for WKCR. For Pete’s Sake runs biweekly.