The Columbia Lions will board up the bus and head up to Connecticut, trying to pull off the upset of the century as they take on the defending national champions in their first game on Friday. Although the Lions return the Ivy League's leading scorer, Noruwa Agho, they are still considered 24-point underdogs against the Huskies, which will raise the banner at Gampel Pavillion tonight.
Maybe the one thing keeping the Lions optimistic tonight is that NBA lottery draft pick Kemba Walker won't be suiting up. Walker left after his junior year at Connecticut to play in the NBA, but the lockout has kept the Connecticut hero, who led the Huskies on a magical March run to become Big East and national champions, in Storrs. It is likely he will be at the game tonight.
Another man who will not be a factor at the game tonight is UConn head coach Jim Calhoun, who is beginning his NCAA-sanctioned three-game suspension tonight for recruiting violations. Associate head coach George Blaney will take the helm.
On the other bench, Columbia head coach Kyle Smith begins his second year as head coach of the Lions after leading them to a 15-13 record last season. Smith said that he believes that they have "one of the best backcourts in the league with [Brian] Barbour and Agho." Barbour returns for his junior season after a breakout season last year. He averaged more than 13 points a game and was one of the best in the country from the charity stripe.
Columbia did lose a lot of size in the frontcourt, however. The Lions do return juniors Mark Cisco and John Daniels, who will have increased roles this year. John Daniels is a defensive specialist, one of the few on a Columbia team that has been offensively focused since having Smith take over. Last year, the team averaged more than 70 points for the first time in 18 seasons.
Both teams tonight are very young, but it can't be overstated just how much experience some of the Connecticut sophomores have. Jeremy Lamb was a hero during the NCAA tournament run, averaging more than 11 points during the season. Point guard Shabazz Napier will also have an increased role. The Huskies were also able to pick up the nation's No. 1 recruit, Andre Drummond, to add to a team that was ranked No. 4 coming into the season.
Just as with last year, the Lions were picked to finish seventh out of eight teams in conference play, and just like last year they hope to surprise a lot of people. They may not win tonight, but they will be able to get a sense of where they stand this year against Connecticut. Kyle Smith and his team are certainly up for the challenge.