We’re counting down the top 10 moments in each Ivy school’s history as part of our Ivy League at 60 retrospective. Columbia is next because 1968 was a good year to wear Light Blue.
The rest of Columbia’s top moments all revolve around the incredible 1968 team in some way. Today’s entry is the 16-game win streak that propelled the Lions to national relevance and ultimately put them in position to play and win a one-game playoff to reach the NCAA Tournament.
The team did not get off to a very good start, which is odd considering the talent on the squad and where it would end up by March. The team won its first four games but then immediately dropped three in a row, including getting blown out in the Ivy opener against Cornell in Ithaca. It would not get easier for the Lions, as their next matchups would be in the prestigious Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden. The Lions would face three top opponents in quick succession at a tournament in which Bill Bradley and Cazzie Russell among others had made their mark on the national stage with strong performances.
Columbia started the Holiday Festival and its 16-game win streak with a statement, stomping out West Virginia by 26 points with No. 2 ranked Louisville to follow. Louisville was deep, and despite being 3-3 at the time it faced the Lions, the Cardinals would go on to make the 1968 NCAA Tournament as well. In a hard-fought game, the Lions held off Lousiville, 74-67, to reach the final against local rival St. John’s, yet another team that would reach the NCAA Tournament. Behind 20 points from frontcourt star Jim McMillian, Columbia defeated St. John’s, 60-55. McMillian scored 20 in the second half, including 12 points down the stretch to put the Redmen away. The Lions were now Holiday Festival champions and had made a statement that they were a force to be reckoned with as the calendar turned to 1968.
From there, the remainder of the Ivy League schedule awaited. For the Lions, it was mostly a cakewalk. The five-point win over St. John’s at Madison Square Garden was the closest game the Lions would play for the duration of the win streak. Columbia averaged 109 points per game in its two wins over Harvard, including a 115-point effort which at the time was a school record for most points in a game. The streak also featured a 42-point beatdown of the Cornell Big Red as the Lions exacted some revenge for their December defeat.
Columbia was led by the dominating trio of McMillian, Dave Newmark and Heyward Dotson. All three averaged more than 13 points per game that season, with McMillian averaging 22.3 as a sophomore. (Keep in mind that at the time, freshmen were ineligible to play NCAA basketball.) Newmark was a 7-foot-1 center which helped to complement the wing play of Dotson and McMillian. The latter two were both excellent shooters and it is stunning to think about how many more points Columbia could have scored in these blowout wins had there been a three-point arc. All three along with Roger Walaszek would end up being drafted in the coming years, and the postseason accolades from the 1968 team alone are incredible: Jack Rohan was named the national Coach of the Year, McMillian and Newmark made national All-American teams, and McMillian was named the ECAC sophomore of the year and the award for best player in New York City.
The streak would come to a close in Princeton on the last day of the regular season as Newmark missed the game with an ankle injury and the Lions lost by 11 points. Over the course of two and a half months, Columbia played the best ball in the school’s history, averaging 76 points per game and only allowing 55.
It was not the only experience McMillian would have with a long streak, as his Los Angeles Lakers enjoyed a 33-game win streak en route to an NBA championship in 1971-72. Despite how dominant the streak was, it was bookended with losses in Ivy play, setting up a one-game playoff against Princeton for the right to represent the Ivy League in the NCAA Tournament. Of course, the Lions went on to win that game but even if they had not, this streak would stand the test of time as the best stretch of basketball that Columbia has ever played and is among the best any Ivy team has performed as well.