As junior captain Noruwa Agho joined seniors Zack Crimmins and Max Craig at the table for the postgame press conference, the trio of upperclassmen was notably silent. They offered little explanation for a devastating 61-42 loss at the hands of the Harvard Crimson.
The first question asked was what went wrong in round two when the Lions had been so confident they could win after losing in Boston.
Five seconds of silence transpired until Crimmins murmured, “We just played a little stagnantly on offense and they’re a good defensive team. We just didn’t really get it going against them offensively, I think.”
Forty-two points on 34 percent shooting would suggest as much.
A few minutes later, a question was asked about Harvard’s commanding 36-18 advantage on the glass.
Shrugs. Head-shaking. More silence.
Then: “Harvard has good big guys. They have a good front court and rebound really well.”
Does that mean that the Lions do not?
The one question that drew an immediate response was where the Lions stood in the league, as Craig talked about finishing strong, ending 9-5, and hoping for a miracle at the top of the standings.
While optimism is what one would hope to see, when coach Kyle Smith took over the microphone, he said the Lions are far from being an elite team.
“I think your question to them—where do we stand in the league—we’ve got work to do to catch those guys,” Smith said of Harvard and Princeton.
What about the ugly loss?
“I think there was a little bit of shell shock.”
Such a statement would have surprised no one at the beginning of the season when the media picked Columbia to finish seventh in the Ivy League.
However, at various points in the year the Lions had a chance to make a major leap forward. They went 9-5 in non-conference play, the program’s best start since the 2006-2007 season. That was the first of three 7-7 Ivy seasons, the year that made everyone think Columbia was making its move.
Four games into league play this year, and some felt the same way. Having already swept three-time-defending champs Cornell, the Lions were 3-1, with a loss at Harvard as the lone blemish.
Then, the following weekend, things began to unravel, starting with Brown’s Sean McGonagill single-handedly carrying the Bears to a come-from-behind victory.
Smith deemed the performance an anomaly, but Yale’s Greg Mangano scored 19 points in a half the next night and Princeton’s Ian Hummer notched 25 points and 12 rebounds a week later.
Including that Brown loss, the Lions are 2-4 over their past six games. They still sit at 5-5 overall—good for a fourth-place tie—and a top-half league finish is well-within reach.
Still, there was a time this season when that would have seemed like a worst-case scenario. Back when the Lions held a substantial lead at Brown, a 4-1 record seemed close at hand, meaning the Lions would need just four wins in nine tries to lock down a winning Ivy record. Six of those nine would be at home.
Now it will take three wins in four games, two of which come at Penn and Princeton, and three of which come against teams that beat Columbia the first time around.
Moreover, a closer look at the Lions’ 5-5 mark reveals that four of their five wins came against Cornell and Dartmouth, teams with a combined four league wins.
“We’re limping in a little bit,” Smith said yesterday.
There remains plenty to take away from this season—the emergence of Brian Barbour, the recent assertiveness of Asenso Ampim and the potential of Mark Cisco.
Yet once again Columbia finds itself unable register the breakthrough that eluded Smith’s predecessor, Joe Jones.
It is early in a new era and coach Kyle Smith has yet to place his full imprint on the program, but it is not yet clear what that imprint will be.
In terms of playing style, Smith’s attack thrives on offensive rebounding, taking care of the ball and knocking down outside shots. Indeed, Smith points to two major developments that signal what he has tried to accomplish—better rebounding and fewer turnovers.
Still, what about the high-scoring offense that characterizes St. Mary’s, the program Smith comes from? Though the Lions’ rebounding numbers are up and turnovers are down, the Lions’ shooting is the worst in the Ivy League. The result is an offense that has looked stagnant for much of Ivy play, especially against the better teams.
As with McGonagill, Smith sees less of a trend and more just a few bad games.
“This weekend, it was like putting for a golfer,” he said. “When they are making putts, they make everything. There is a little bit of a mojo, a confidence. When that gets shaken you start missing, like with short putts.”
Still, the Lions’ offensive struggles are not isolated to this past weekend.
In two games against Harvard, the Lions shot 36 percent and averaged 54 points. Princeton held them to 46 points at home, and even Dartmouth held them under 35 percent from the field in Levien.
Few doubt that if the Lions are going to ascend to the next level and make that breakthrough, they will need to be able to play with the best in the league. Winning is the end goal, but being competitive is the start. The Lions have yet to do that against Harvard or Princeton.
And so one returns to Saturday’s press conference.
The Lions’ size seemed to give them an advantage against Keith Wright, and indeed they slowed him in the first half. How then did he end up with 16 points and 12 rebounds?
Six second of silence, and then, “He’s a good player.”