Despite being picked to finish last in the preseason media poll, the men’s basketball team made history in the 2013-14 season.
The Lions (21-13, 8-6 Ivy) posted their highest Ivy win total, best winning percentage, and best conference finish in two decades, and tallied its most overall wins and first postseason appearance in over 40 years.
And although the season ended in a loss at home to Yale in the quarterfinals of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, the Light Blue took a massive step forward—finishing third in the league despite fielding a senior-less team that had graduated multiple starters.
After dropping its second game of the season to Manhattan in familiar fashion—the Lions played the Jaspers well, and were in position to win before falling apart in the final seconds—Columbia began to turn things around.
The Light Blue came close to taking down then-No. 2 Michigan State at the Breslin Center on Nov. 15 in what would have been one of the biggest upsets of the college basketball season. Though they were unable to hold on to their second-half lead, the Lions showed their potential.
“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.”
Columbia took off after the close call in East Lansing. The Lions finished nonconference play on a 10-4 run, and showed that they could overcome their ugly history in close games with a double overtime win at Colgate. Columbia’s defense was top-notch, and the Light Blue was connecting on more than 40 percent of its three-point shots.
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 the victory was bittersweet, as sophomore guard Grant Mullins went down with what turned out to be a concussion.
Unlike in 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. Sophomore guard Maodo Lo took over for Mullins at point guard, earning second-team All-Ivy honors. Junior guards Meiko Lyles and Steve Frankoski pitched in, too, and junior forward Alex Rosenberg continued his strong play—including a 34-point, seven-rebound performance in a 88-84 double-overtime loss to Harvard at home—en route to a first-team All-Ivy nod.
Behind 41 points from Rosenberg, the Lions swept Brown and Yale at home for their first Ivy weekend sweep in five years. After an uneven final two weekends, the team finished third and was selected to play in the CIT.
The Light Blue opened the tournament at Valparaiso, where Lo knocked down a 19-foot buzzer-beater to send Columbia into the second round.
“We said if it’s a tied game, we’ll just play for one shot with Maodo,” Smith said after the game. “Everything from here on out is good education for our guys, as far as getting practices this late in the year, and playing these situations, understanding what postseason basketball is like.”
The Light Blue hosted Eastern Michigan in the second round of the CIT and was locked in another tense battle. The Eagles, one of the best defensive teams in the country, led by six with nine minutes to go.
Columbia clamped down and only allowed Eastern Michigan one more basket the rest of the way to come away with a 69-56 win.
“I knew there’d be an ebb and flow,” Smith said after the game. “As long as we took care of the ball we’d be OK.”
Columbia looked like it was in good position in its next game as well—a CIT quarterfinal matchup with Yale. The Lions were ahead 34-25 at the half in front of a raucous Levien Gymnasium crowd.
But the Lions let the game slip away in the second half, ultimately falling 72-69 to the Bulldogs, who made it to the CIT final before losing to Murray State.
“We were all excited to play in postseason, so there was no feeling of, ‘Ah, the season’s stretching,’” Lo said after the loss. “We had an exciting win in the first round of the tournament, and then we had a solid win against Eastern Michigan, so it was a great feeling and a great atmosphere within the team.”
After finishing the 2012-13 season in last place, Columbia bounced back to finish third in the league and was one of five Ivies to earn a postseason berth.
“The way last season ended, it was just a terrible feeling,” sophomore guard Isaac Cohen said. “To just know that when the regular season ended this year, we did enough to put ourselves in position to get into a postseason, was just a lot more positive. Extending the season and playing more games is better than working out.”