When you’re an Ivy League team and you play the No. 1-ranked team in the country, your goal is respectability. To show your fans that you can hang tough with blue-chip NBA prospects, to make your alumni proud on the biggest possible stage, and to demonstrate to basketball observers anywhere that the Ivy League is not to be taken lightly.
The Columbia Lions checked all three of those boxes on Wednesday — and many more. They scored eleven points before Kentucky — a team with NINE All-Americans coming out of high school, playing at home in one of the toughest gyms in the country — scored even one. They led at halftime, 25-23, ensuring an ESPN2 halftime show that focused on how good Columbia was playing.* It was 27 minutes into the game before Kentucky seized the lead, as the Lions forced the Wildcats to activate their considerable potential in a game they would have expected to be a walk in the cake. It was a game that will linger long in the memory of the long-suffering Light Blue boosters.
(*It was entertaining to see ESPN2 struggle to fit a planned six-part segment on the John Calipari Era at UK into the production. Not even the producers were expecting a basketball game to break out.)
If nothing else, this game should serve as Maodo Lo’s coming-out party for a national audience. It’s one thing to average twenty points against the likes of Loyola and Bucknell; it’s another thing entirely to score 16, lead the team in rebounds, pick up three steals and commit zero turnovers against the No. 1 team in the country. Columbia is firmly the Chairman’s team now, and if his form continues he will present a matchup nightmare for every Lions opponent.
But the biggest hero of the game was Kyle Smith. The Columbia coach has built a winning program in Morningside Heights — something that has seemed impossible — and has shown it off in high-profile games each of the last three years. Two years ago, it was a stunning upset of Villanova; last year, it was a down-to-the-wire finish against No. 2 Michigan State. Kentucky, though, might be his biggest and best performance yet.
Smith deserves credit for two key components: putting together the kind of team he wants, then crafting a game plan to maximize its talents. The Lions have approximately 46 guards who are passers, have good court vision, play smart defense and can shoot threes all day long. Mix in a young, developing frontcourt anchored by a 7-foot center who can play point guard, and Columbia is an extremely difficult team to play against. They’re not the best team in the world — they aren’t even the best team in the Ivy League — but they can give any team trouble on any given day.
How they do this is also a massive credit to Kyle Smith. Sam Tydings’s analysis of the offense — which he calls “Uglyball” — is extremely good, and Columbia executed the Uglyball script to perfection against UK. I enjoyed this simplistic analysis from Reddit’s “gwildcat”, unearthed by WKCR Sports
— WKCR Sports (@WKCRsports) December 11, 2014
But Smith also added some adjustments on defense to try to neutralize Kentucky. The Wildcats feature a number of skilled post players, but they haven’t been shooting the ball very well. Every time Kentucky worked the ball into the post, a Lion perimeter defender would collapse down on the ballhandler, limiting the ability for a free look. Even when Kentucky could work it back to the perimeter, they did not succeed — hitting a mere two of 17 three-point attempts on the evening. The Lions also slowed the pace down to a crawl, limiting Kentucky’s ability to notch easy buckets in transition.
Of course, Columbia did eventually lose. There’s only so much you can do against talent, and Kentucky has more of that than basically any college basketball team ever. The Cats used their athleticism to force the Light Blue into turnovers, and their bigs asserted their dominance on the offensive boards. The loss was inevitable.
Yet in many ways — I would suggest every way but one! — it felt like a win. For a glorious hour, the sports world focused on Columbia basketball and the Ivy League. The Lions made the the league proud, while sending a warning shot across the bow of Harvard and Yale. It was an evening to remember.