Season Preview: Columbia Lions

The Lions will only go as far as All-Ivy guard Noruwa Agho can carry them. (Photo credit: gocolumbialions.com)

The good news for Columbia is that they return a proven backcourt duo in Noruwa Agho and Brian Barbour. The pair made for a dangerous tag-team last year, dominating foes that allowed them to get to the rim and take high percentage shots. The Lions lived and died by Agho and Barbour, as the pair accounted for 47.9 percent of Columbia’s points during the conference season. Despite this backcourt dependence, Columbia could very easily have finished last year in the top half if they had held on to late-season leads at Princeton and against Yale. In games where the Lions weren’t outmanned in the frontcourt, they performed extremely well, pulling out sweeps of Cornell and Dartmouth, and splits with Penn and Brown. It all starts with the two guards though, and there’s no reason to think that this season will be very different.

In Agho, Columbia has a true scorer. As much as some critics disparaged his efficiency numbers last year (and the All-Ivy First Team selection certainly did take his fair share of shots), Agho shouldered a bigger load than any other player in the league because the Lions lacked another consistent scoring option on the wing or down low. With little help surrounding him, Agho coasted to the conference scoring title. Meanwhile, Barbour quickly emerged as one of the league’s best point guards, posting the conference’s second-best offensive efficiency numbers behind Harvard’s Oliver McNally. First-year coach Kyle Smith leaned heavily on his young point guard, as Barbour played the third-greatest share of minutes for his team of anyone in the Ivy at 86.9 percent (Agho was fourth at 85.5 percent).

Behind Agho and Barbour, the cupboard is rather bare. Mark Cisco, the 6’9” junior, will be Columbia’s best interior returner. Cisco managed to drop in 59.6 percent of his shots from the field last year, and if the Lions have a chance to surprise people, they’ll need him to draw some attention away from the dynamic backcourt.

Key Losses:

The Lions will have to replace a defensive and rebounding asset in Asenso Ampim. They also lost some other big bodies in Brian Grimes, Max Craig, and Zach Crimmins. As a team that needs to improve its frontcourt, Columbia may suffer some growing pains this season with underclassmen stepping in and few experienced big men to help show them the ropes. On the flip side, the Lions’ young big men will gain valuable experience by getting to play immediately, and when Coach Smith has another class or two of recruits for his system in place, this year’s frontcourt may be settling in just fine.

Key Additions:

Columbia has brought in a number of guys with size in the past few years, but, with all due respect to Ampim and Grimes, the Lions haven’t really found anyone to consistently anchor the frontcourt successfully on both the offensive and defensive end since John Baumann and Ben Nwachukwu in 2007-08. Coach Smith hopes that this year’s class of bigs will change that. He has brought in four freshmen over 6-7, including Cory Osetkowski, a 6-10, 265 lb. center who will also be hurling the pill for the Lions’ baseball team. Samer Ozeir, a 6-8 forward from Michigan, brings international experience to the Lions squad, having averaged 13.8 points and 5.3 rebounds for Lebanon at the under-18 Asian Championships in Yemen in 2010. Alex Rosenberg, a 6-7 forward from New Jersey, seems to be a perimeter player with a good three-point shot from most reports. Skylar Scrivano, whose strengths are most evident on the defensive end, clocks in at 6-9. Darius Stevens is a lanky 6-6 athletic wing. ESPN had him rated as an 89 before committing to Columbia, so there’s a potential for him to see early minutes.

Noah Springwater is the only guard in the class. Coach Smith has already gone on the record and stated that he’ll have early opportunities to see minutes behind Barbour and Agho.

Key Games:

11/11 at UConn: If the Lions can keep it close in their opener, it could set a good tone. This will be a real test for Noruwa Agho, if he’s looking to play at the next level. It should be interesting to see how he handles the pressure of one of the nation’s best defenses. Columbia will be hard-pressed to keep this one from getting out of hand.

1/13 vs. Penn– Columbia kicks off the conference season against a similar team with an unproven frontcourt and a very solid backcourt. If Columbia wants to surprise some people and finish in the top half, it would go a long way to grab the opener at home against the Quakers.

1/21 vs. Cornell– If Columbia’s going to finish ahead of the Big Red, they are going to need to win at Levien. With seven of their following nine games on the road after this tilt, Columbia needs to capitalize right out of the gate in order to compete this season.

2/10 vs. Brown– This may be the only game in February that the Lions are favored to win.

Rotation:

In the backcourt, it will be Barbour and Agho leading the way. Steve Frankoski is a streaky shooting guard who showed the ability to knock down the three ball last year. He’ll provide some depth in the backcourt, as will the freshman, Springwater. Sophomore Meiko Lyles showed in limited chances that he could be useful, scoring 14 and 16 on the last weekend of the season and earning Rookie of the Week honors. If he’s healthy, he will contribute. The Lions have a slew of other guards who will see limited action behind their star duo, but with the big freshman class, they may try going big on the wing. It would certainly help out Barbour and Agho if some wing and frontcourt weapons emerged. Mark Cisco will be the go-to guy down low. The 6-9 junior is the only sure thing in a frontcourt that remains unresolved. Coach Smith has said Cisco can do it all, but he worries about how the Lions match up against Yale, Harvard and Princeton in the paint. Cisco will be guarding some of the league’s best players in Keith Wright, Greg Mangano, and possibly Ian Hummer, making his role critical this year. John Daniels is another big body that will see time in the frontcourt. His strengths are on the defensive end as well. It will be important for Cisco to finish at the rim because the Lions have very few proven frontcourt scorers, and Columbia simply can’t afford to rely on Barbour and Agho for half their points again.

Prediction: 

The Lions have their work cut out for them with serious frontcourt questions in a league with some really good big guys in the top tier. That said, Agho and Barbour are the real deal. Columbia will go as far as they can carry them. With some quick contributions from even one or two of the big freshmen and a breakout year from Cisco that some Ivy experts are predicting, this team could challenge for a top-half finish. Another year under Coach Smith’s system will be helpful for the returners, and Columbia should certainly take a step forward from last year. Still, in such a competitive year for the league, that may not be enough for the Lions to show progress in the standings. Teams are going to focus heavily on stopping the backcourt weapons and even if Cisco does step up, three solid weapons still produces two mismatches against the league’s top teams. The Lions are still a couple years away. They’ll keep a lot of games close this year, but I see them finishing in the bottom half, in 7th, ahead of only Dartmouth.

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