Over the past decade, the Columbia men’s basketball program has featured two head coaches, a number of high-impact players that helped redefine what individual success can look like at Levien Gymnasium, and a few high-intensity moments that will be talked about for decades. And yet, despite these undoubtedly positive developments, the defining takeaway from this decade is that the team has been unable to break out of the pattern of mediocrity that has long been its reputation.
The decade began with the hiring of head coach Kyle Smith to replace Joe Jones, who left to be an associate head coach at Boston College. The move paid immediate dividends, as the team's record improved from 11-17 to 15-13 in Smith’s first season. This was the first winning season for a new Columbia head coach in 33 years. Smith followed up the success in his first season with another 15-win season in 2011-2012, making him the first coach at Columbia to achieve back-to-back 15-win seasons since the 1970s.
Smith’s achievements would not have been possible without at least a few standouts on the court; he had this even in his first season, as Noruwa Agho, CC ’12, was named to the first-team All-Ivy as a junior before missing his senior season due to an injury. Alongside Agho was guard Brian Barbour, CC ’13, who was an honorable mention as a sophomore and a first-team All-Ivy selection as a junior; as a senior, he made the second-team All-Ivy.
During Smith’s six seasons with the program, the Lions finished as high as third place in the Ivy League, a feat they accomplished twice. While Smith was unable to bring the Lions to the peak of the Ancient Eight, his success at a program long-thought to be the laughing stock of the league got him hired by the University of San Francisco, and he has since gone on to take the head coaching position at Washington State University.
In his stead, the Lions hired Jim Engles away from the New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2016. In the four seasons since his hiring, the Lions have not finished in the top half in the Ivy League standings, including a seventh-place finish in 2019 and a last-place finish this past season.
While the men’s basketball program did not achieve the collective success its supporters may have hoped for, there was still plenty for the Columbia faithful to root for, as some of the most impactful players in program history came through the program during the 2010s. Through the opening years of the decade with Brian Barbour, CC ’13, and Noruwa Agho, CC ’12; Maodo Lo’s success in the middle years of the decade; and point guard Mike Smith’s dominant senior season to close out the 2010s, Columbia men’s basketball has featured a number of stars that defined their respective teams.
While each of these athletes was critical to the Lions’ success and is deserving of his own write-up, Smith’s success, which can be measured on a national scale, makes him the player of the decade for the men’s basketball program.
Smith joined the team during the 2016-2017 season, the first under Engles, and the Illinois native made clear from the very beginning that he was going to have a big impact on the program. In his first season, Smith started all 27 games for the Lions, a rare feat for a point guard, a position that generally requires a number of seasons to adjust to the speed of the game. Smith averaged 13.6 points and 3.5 assists per game that season, making clear that the point guard position was his for the duration of his time at Columbia.
Smith followed up his first-year success with an even more dominant sophomore season during which he averaged 17.6 points and 4.6 assists. While the team’s 8-19 record was disappointing, Smith was a second-team All-Ivy selection and gave the Lions hope for the success his upperclassmen years could portend.
Unfortunately for Smith and the Lions, the star point guard went down with a season-ending injury just eight games into his junior season and was unable to help the Lions for the rest of the season. However, Smith came back at the start of his senior season with fresh legs and a determination to show the conference what it had missed when he went down. The energy saved in the year off proved crucial for Smith, who was called to bear much of the burden for the Lions in 2019-2020, averaging 37.8 minutes per game, which includes a number of matchups at which Smith didn’t see the bench once. This helped Smith put up 22.8 points per game, good for sixth-best in the nation and the second-highest single-season scoring total in program history.
While his individual success did not equate to team success, as the Lions finished 6-24 and dead last in the Ivy League in his senior season, Smith stepped up night after night and proved to be a dominant player nationally.
As much as star players and exhilarating moments are nice to reflect on and remember, a college basketball team is first and foremost defined by the success or failures of the head coach. The past decade in Columbia basketball has seen two different head coaches in charge, one of whom established himself as one of the best coaches to lead the Lions and the other of whom is still writing his legacy.
The Lions kicked off the decade with a splash, signing former head coach Kyle Smith away from St. Mary’s College of California, where he was a part of a staff that led the Gaels to three NCAA tournament appearances over his nine seasons with the team. Once he got to Columbia, Smith made it clear that he was going to be an impactful presence, as he became the first coach in 33 years to secure a winning record in his first season with the team. Smith followed the success of his first season with another 15-win year, becoming the first Columbia basketball coach to record as many as 30 wins in his first two seasons since Lou Rossini in 1952.
Smith’s success, which included two top-three finishes in the Ivy League and a 101-82 record, made him a hot coaching commodity after his sixth season with the team, and he left the program to take over as the head coach at the University of San Francisco. He has since been hired by Washington State, a team that plays in the Pac-12, a Power Five conference.
To take over for Smith, Columbia turned to a familiar face, as Jim Engles had served as an assistant coach for the Lions from 2003-2008 under head coach Joe Jones. In the four seasons under Engles, the Lions have not been able to achieve the same level of success they had under Smith. The team has not made the Ivy League tournament with Engles as head coach, including a two-year stretch in 2019 and 2020 during which the team finished seventh and eighth in the conference, respectively. Heading into his fifth season at the helm, Engles is entering a crucial season that could determine whether he is the right man for the job or if the team needs to look elsewhere to find someone to lead the program.
The Lions’ lack of success in the Ivy League does not mean that the decade was devoid of exciting moments. While the Lions participated in few games with ramifications for the conference overall, the team played in a number of nail-biters that have gone down in Columbia lore, none of which was more iconic than 2019’s triple-overtime contest against Harvard.
The two teams entered the Feb. 8 matchup at Harvard’s Lavietes Pavilion on two very different trajectories. The Lions came into the game with a 6-12 record and just one conference win through its first four Ivy League contests. Harvard, on the other hand, was 10-7 before this game and had gone 3-1 in Ivy League play.
Despite the difference in records, the two teams seemed evenly matched throughout this game, as Columbia went into halftime down only one point. This was in large part due to the Lions’ success from three in this contest, as the team went 12-26 from three. It was much the same story in the second half, as the Lions found themselves down by just three points. Junior guard Gabe Stefanini inbounded the ball to junior forward Randy Brumant, who immediately dished the ball back to Stefanini. With 4.8 seconds to go, Stefanini dribbled the length of the court before draining a three from the top of the key, despite Harvard’s Bryce Aiken closely contesting the shot. The buzzer-beater tied the game at 69 apiece and sent the game into overtime, setting the stage for an even wilder game.
The two teams kept it close in the first overtime period, as Harvard found itself in a similar position to the one Columbia was in at the end of regulation. Down three with just 4.3 seconds left, Aiken caught the inbounds for Harvard and raced his way past two Light Blue defenders before getting to his spot to shoot. Seniorforward Patrick Tapé forced Aiken to adjust in the air and double-clutch before releasing a prayer of a shot that found the bottom of the net, shocking both teams as well as the Harvard crowd.
As a result, the game went into double overtime, during which senior guard Jake Killingsworth drained a three with 17 seconds left to force yet another overtime period. In the third overtime, Harvard edged out the Lions to win by a final score of 98-96.
Senior staff writer Harris Walker can be reached at Harris.Walker@columbiaspectator.com. Follow him on Twitter @Harriswakler17