When the Light Blue takes the floor against the NCAA defending champion Connecticut Huskies tonight, they will have more than just the few weeks of practice together they have had with coaches. They will have a full summer of experience.
Almost the entire team worked out together at 6 a.m. every morning over the break, on top of other commitments and evening workouts. The strenuous schedule didn’t seem to bother them though.
“It was a lot of fun,” senior guard Steve Egee said of the morning practices. “We called ourselves the Breakfast Club, because we’d go get something to eat after.”
Summer’s long gone now, though, and it’s time to see how much the team has improved from last season.
Two All-Ivy League guards return. A pair of junior big men enter the season healthy after battling injury for much of last season. Senior leadership abounds. A head coach enters his second campaign brimming with confidence after tallying Columbia’s first winning record since the 2006-2007 season. A squad which put up 70.8 points per game, the most for a Light Blue squad in 18 years, returns three of its top four scorers from last year, including the conference’s leading scorer.
“We did a lot of great things last year, and we’re trying to build off those things,” Egee said. “It started in the spring, in the summer, in the fall, and now we’re into practices, scrimmages, pre-league games. We’re constantly building.”
This is a team that looks to be on the rise. As head coach Kyle Smith begins his sophomore season at the reins of the Lions’ basketball program, Levien Gymnasium seems an exciting place to be. Yet not everyone agrees—in the preseason Ivy League media poll, Columbia was predicted to finish seventh in the Ancient Eight. The poll came as a surprise to many around Morningside Heights, but it is an indication of the main question surrounding the 2011-2012 season for the Light Blue: Can this team build on last year’s success? The pieces are all there, from an experienced backcourt to a frontcourt eager to prove itself, but will these parts come together to continue to improve?
“I’m really excited to see how good we can be,” senior guard Noruwa Agho said. “I don’t know what anyone is projecting us at—quite frankly, it doesn’t really matter. But I know what we look like in practice everyday, and we look good. We look good.”
Agho will be leading the charge. The preseason first-team all-Ivy selection led the Ivy League in scoring last winter with 16.8 points per game. The senior guard also led the team in assists, dishing out 119 while pulling down 4.9 rebounds per game, making him the team’s leading returning rebounder.
“Noruwa’s been unbelievable as a role model to me, kind of taking me under his wing, but also as a role model to most of our guys on the team this year,” junior guard Brian Barbour said. “He’s a very strong-minded person and he really demonstrates how we have to play, how we have to be tough. He does a really good job instilling that in the younger guys, too.”
While last season saw Agho develop into both a playmaker and a scorer, the 2010-2011 campaign also saw the emergence of Barbour as the starting point guard. The junior from Alamo, Calif. made the most of his first season as a regular starter, tallying 13.3 points per game to go with 90 assists, good for second on the team in both categories.
Mark Cisco will be the man to watch under the basket for the Lions after graduation saw the departure of four seniors, all of them either forwards or centers. With seven-footers Max Craig and Zack Crimmins out of the picture, along with last year’s leading rebounder Asenso Ampim, it will be up to Cisco and fellow junior John Daniels to prove themselves. Cisco and Daniels are not new to the starting lineup, though, having both received significant playing time in each of their first two seasons. They will look to use that experience to help them this year as they transition into everyday starters for the Lions.
“Mark and I have been playing together for three years,” Daniels said. “I think we really know each other’s tendencies—we compliment each other well. As far as this upcoming season, I think we just got to focus on doing what we’ve always been doing and getting better.”
Cisco may play a particularly large role in determining this season’s success. If the team’s fourth-leading scorer from a year ago can establish himself as a consistent threat down low for the Light Blue, opposing teams will not be able to hone in on Agho and Barbour as they did a year or two ago.
“We have a good low-post threat in Mark Cisco, and he’s just got to develop and become a good low-post scorer—night in and night out,” Smith said. “And I think he will.”
Agho also thinks a big part of the Lions’ offensive success will be its ability to stop teams on the other end of the floor.
“We want to be good at everything, and honestly, not to throw out a cliché, but it’s defense that’s going to make us good at offense,” he said. “If we’re taking the ball out of the basket every time, you can’t get transition and you’re kind of forced to play half court.”
Yet the biggest factor for this team may be the intangibles. This team’s leadership and the work the ‘Breakfast Club’ put in this summer seem to be good signs. One senior in particular has helped shape the team in a way that does not necessarily show up in the box score.
“Steve, what he’s done for the program is really hard to measure, but he’s been a great role model and a guy who really brings all the pieces together,” Barbour said. “It would be tough to do anything without Steve Egee on our team.”
Smith agreed, saying that Egee has been an excellent role model for the younger players. “Honestly, Steve Egee is about the best human being I have ever been around.”
With all of the pieces for a good team in place, the question becomes how the Lions will put it all together. With a senior-heavy team, every practice, every game, and every day is even more important. Agho, Egee, Chris Crockett, Matt Johnson, and Blaise Staab all only have one shot left at winning the Ivy crown, and none of them want to waste any time this year.
“I don’t have as much time as I did before, and to really try to get better each day is important,” Agho said. “That means extra work and extra time with the coaches, and trying to make the adjustments so we’re better as a team. I don’t want to look back and wonder ‘what if?’.”