NEW YORK – Last night had the feeling of a bigger game than it actually was. Levien Gymnasium was sold out and deafening as Columbia rained down three-pointers against an easily relenting Penn defense. Press row was as packed as I have seen it since Columbia played against Harvard the last few years or Cornell in 2010 – as in, against teams that went on to win the Ivy League, not one looking to avoid the cellar. Columbia could not have drawn up a better game, and every adjustment Penn attempted was met with a barrage of Lions three-pointers that actually went in, unlike in their previous struggles in their home gym. Unfortunately for Columbia this led to an all too common refrain from their fans: Where has this been the last two weeks?
Columbia’s only consistency in the short yet overly meaningful sample of Ivy play has been its inconsistency. The Lions have put up dominant efforts in two games, shield-your-eyes ugly basketball in two others, and they have been just not quite good enough in the games against the two best teams they have played so far (Yale and Princeton). The Lions’ home shooting issues finally dissipated against a Penn team whose defensive schemes did not surprise Kyle Smith at all. Smith said postgame that Penn’s reliance on keeping bigs like Darien Nelson-Henry on the floor allowed the Lions to start their offense with a high pick-and-roll without worrying about Maodo Lo being inhibited by a high hedge. This defense has slowed Lo down in recent games, most notably during his struggles against Cornell. After Lo’s 16-point showing last night compared to his issues dealing with a trapping defense previously, any Ivy team that doesn’t trap the Lions’ star guard is not doing the most basic of homework.
The Lions’ run for an Ivy title was likely derailed before the season started when Alex Rosenberg was diagnosed with a Jones fracture in his foot. Whatever slim chance they have of still beating out both teams they trail by two games will come down to the next two weekends. Columbia will no longer enjoy the not-so-friendly confines of Levien Gymnasium, as it faces both Harvard and Yale in Cambridge and New Haven respectively over the course of the next two weekends. Anything less than a 4-0 record over the next fortnight and the Lions are playing for nothing more than a better CIT seed the rest of the season. They will almost certainly slip up along the way, but if the offense can create open looks against teams that will certainly be trapping Maodo Lo, Isaac Cohen, Kyle Castlin or any ball handler through whom Columbia decides to run their offense, their road trips can be considered a success.
Saturday night in Morningside Heights showed the promise of what Columbia can be when all of the chips fall into place: a sellout crowd cheering 15 made three-pointers, a lockdown defense forcing bad shots and grabbing the misses and the media chronicling it from a full press row. The fans will likely always be there, regardless of the wins, the promotions, or who is being honored at halftime. The shots have been open but Saturday was the first time they had fallen in bunches in a long time. Neither Smith nor his players had any real explanation after the game for why Columbia has struggled at home this season, already surpassing the two losses at Levien the Lions had in league play last season. Its 2-3 stretch the last three weekends has doomed Columbia’s shot at an Ivy title this season, but we will learn more about the Lions by seeing the adjustments Smith and his team make over the course of the next month than simply looking at where they finish in the Ivy standings when the year ends.