It was only a few weeks ago that the men’s basketball team traveled to Michigan State and nearly beat the top-ranked Spartans. Light Blue fans remember the moment late in the second half when the camera panned to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. Head in his hands, Izzo couldn’t believe that his team was trailing the Columbia Lions. However, the end result was a bit different for the Spartans as they edged the Light Blue 62-53.
Still, we felt an air of positivity around the team’s potential after this narrow loss.
Well, for a moment. The Lions have scuffled to a 3-2 record in the five games following their clash with the Spartans. To be fair, five games is a rather small sample size, and the Lions played only one of those contests at Levien. Still, if we juxtapose the Michigan State game with the rest of the Lions’ schedule, a few trends appear to be developing.
First, the Lions really rely on their perimeter scoring. Maodo Lo has built upon last season’s strong finish and has developed into a solid perimeter complement to Grant Mullins. The sophomore from Berlin leads the team in scoring, including a game-high 23 points in a win against North Texas. He has made more than 59 percent of his three-pointers this season and has reached double figures in scoring in every game, except for the first two of the season.
Meanwhile, Mullins continues to be among the team’s leading scorers, also capable of carrying the Lions offensively for large stretches of time—in the Light Blue’s loss to Manhattan, Mullins put up 21 in the second half.
Both Lo and Mullins, however, have been a little bit turnover-prone. Last season, they each registered slightly more assists than turnovers, but the picture has been flipped so far this year. Lo and Mullins have each registered more turnovers than assists this season. This is due in part to the fact that the team had senior Brian Barbour as the primary ball-handler last season but now has three sophomores—Lo, Mullins, and Isaac Cohen—splitting duties.
Cohen has thrived at times with a larger role in the offense. He was the second-choice guard off the bench last year behind Lo, but as a sophomore he is a starter and team leader in both rebounds and assists. Cohen turned in his best all-around game of the season against Michigan State, scoring 10 points with nine rebounds and three assists, but he hasn’t managed more than six points in any contest since then.
What does this all mean? Columbia sits at 4-4 on the season, a nonconference record that ranks sixth in the Ivy League. It’s much too early to write off the Lions as cellar-dwellers in the conference or assert that the Lions can definitely challenge Harvard for Ivy League supremacy. But at the very least, it’s encouraging to see that the Lions are able to work through their backcourt.
In recent history, successes in college basketball point to great guard play. Teams need guards who can create their own shots late in possessions and score from behind the three-point line. Guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith led Louisville to the national championship last season. Their opponent was Michigan, led by point guard and Naismith Player of the Year finalist Trey Burke. How much would it have helped Columbia to have that sort of dynamic presence when it was trailing late against Michigan State or Elon? It’s hard to say.
The Lions’ entire team is young. There isn’t a single senior on the roster. Some continued development of the backcourt coupled with the return of sharpshooter Steve Frankoski—out since the beginning of the year due to injury but now participating in warmups—may enable the Lions to pose a serious challenge for a top-half spot in the Ancient Eight for the next two or three years.
Daniel Radov is a Columbia College first-year. Free Advice runs biweekly.