Columbia Basketball Continues Improbable Run as Ivy League Play Begins

Sam BlumCorrespondent IJanuary 4, 2012

The season looked as if it was over before it had really even begun. 

With just over five minutes remaining in the second game of the year, the Lions held a slim advantage over Furman at home. Yet the score was the last thing on anyone's mind as they watched in horror as Noruwa Agho, the Lions' star player, lay humbled and hurt on the floor of Levien Gymnasium. 

Agho, a senior, was picked as a first team All-Ivy selection after leading the league in scoring last year with over 16 per game as a junior. He was considered the lone bright spot on a team that was picked to finish seventh out of eight teams in an Ivy conference that features No. 21 ranked Harvard. 

The Lions went on to lose the game by four, and late that night it was reported that Agho had torn his patellar tendon in his knee and would likely miss the rest of the season. It was a huge blow for Columbia, and many thought it meant that the season was likely lost. 

They then hosted American and saw a second half lead slip en route to an eight-point defeat. That loss was followed by a blowout defeat at Stony Brook heading into what the Columbia players thought was a Thanksgiving break. 

Then, second-year head coach Kyle Smith decided to hold a practice on Thanksgiving night. Whether it was magic or just the spirit of the season, that practice seemed to have been the turning point for the Lions, who went up to the Bronx two days later and defeated the Manhattan Jaspers by 18. They would allow only 42 in their next game against Swarthmore while scoring a blistering 104. They combined to hit 16 threes, tying a program record that night. 

They then went out to California where they upset Loyola Marymount on their home court, a team that had just defeated No. 24 ranked St. Louis. They won the next two games at the Marymount tournament to take home the trophy, shooting 38 out of 69 from the three point range. After the tournament, the Lions led the country in three-pointers made.

Most of those three-pointers came from the man who was responsible for filling the shoes of Noruwa Agho, Meiko Lyles. Lyles, a sophomore, was lights out all tournament, knocking in 12 straight threes at one point. Last year, Lyles averaged just over five points per game in a half season of play. This year he has almost 11 points per game, second on the team only to junior Brian Barbour (14.1 points per game).

When the Lions got home they faced Holy Cross and fell back by 20 points in the second half only to rally and win on their last possession of the game. They then beat Long Island University, a team coming off a 27-6 NCAA tournament season.

After an 18-day holiday break, something that is custom in the Ivy League, the Lions were sluggish on the road at Marist and saw their seven-game win streak snapped. However, they have rebounded in the new year by winning their last three games to make it 10 out of 11. That includes their 66-59 victory over Colgate tonight in Hamilton, NY. 

The key to their success thus far has been defense. They usually don't allow opponents to score over 60 points. They are 8-0 in games when opponents are below that threshold. They are 3-0 when holding opponents to under 50 points. They are also a solid rebounding team, ranked 85th in college basketball at 37.3 boards per game. Also key is the guard play of Brain Barbour, who has had to step up big time. Barbour has led the team in scoring and assists and has been a great vocal leader in the locker room. He was nominated as a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, which is given to the best college basketball point guard. 

In order to make a run in the Ivy League, the Lions will need to stay consistent on the defensive end. They have a very tough conference with teams like Harvard, Princeton and Yale. All those teams have more talent. However, if Columbia can continue to play the smart, tough, us-against-the-world type of basketball, then they have a legitimate shot to contend for their first Ivy League title since 1968.