Last year was supposed to be “the year” for Columbia, which hasn’t won an Ivy title since 1968.
Then star forward Alex Rosenberg broke his foot two weeks before the start of the season and withdrew from school — thanks to the Ivy League’s arcane player eligibility rules. A new star emerged in guard Maodo Lo, but the Lions collapsed at the end of the season, losing their final four games and any shot at competing in the postseason.
Columbia fans have seen their team come agonizingly close to success under coach Kyle Smith, only to have it snatched away at the cruelest of times. Even 2013-14, which ended in a trip to the CIT quarterfinals, had the faint sheen of “what-might-have-been” attached to it, thanks to a devastating double-OT loss to Harvard at Levien Gym midway through Ivy play.
Rosenberg is 100 percent now and, paired with Lo, forms a scoring duo that gives Columbia lofty preseason expectations once again as the start of the 2015-16 season approaches.
But plenty of unanswered questions remain.
Namely, who will play the 5? The departure of Cory Osetkowski to graduation leaves the Lions with a hole in the frontcourt and the players available to replace him are unproven.
Option A is to simply promote 7’1” junior Conor Voss, who has only played 88 total minutes in his career. Option B is to slide in 6’10” junior forward Luke Petrasek, who started five games last year and averaged 5.1 points.
For now, the bigger Voss will get first crack at the job.
“Conor Voss is the exact opposite of Cory offensively,” Smith said, citing the New Orleans Pelicans’ Omer Asik as a player with a comparable skill set. “He’s more of a physical, defensive rebounder, dunker … it changes how we are and we’re hoping he can do that for us defensively.”
Voss doesn’t need to transform himself into a high-usage low post presence to help the Lions operate offensively. Much of the scoring load is expected to fall on Lo and Rosenberg.
Rosenberg hasn’t played a minute of competitive basketball since March 2014. He rightly earned first team All-Ivy honors back then after a junior campaign that saw him average 22.1 points per 40 minutes.
After withdrawing from school to preserve his final season of eligibility, Rosenberg returns as a 24-year-old senior. The emergence of Lo as an elite three-point shooter could have any number of effects on him. On one hand, teams can no longer afford to pack the paint against the Lions, which may give Rosenberg plenty of one-on-one opportunities. On the other hand, Rosenberg may see fewer touches as he gets called on to play a bigger role in the Lions’ screen game in order to get Lo open looks.
“[Alex] has slid in there pretty well,” Smith said of Rosenberg’s reacclimation to the offense. “There’s always rust when you miss that much competitive time — you just haven’t played in a game in so long, that it’ll be a little rusty.
“But otherwise, his health’s been good. He’s been playing hard. He’s in pretty good shape, considering how much time he was out.”
Then there is Lo, who introduced himself to a nationwide audience last December when he dropped 16 points in the Lions’ upset bid against then-No. 1 Kentucky.
Lo finished that season averaging 18.4 points and shooting 43.6 percent beyond the arc. Since then, the senior has been showered with accolades.
In addition to the requisite first team all-Ivy honors, Lo spent the summer playing alongside Dirk Nowitzki on the German national team. (He’ll presumably be on the roster for the 2016 Summer Olympics.) Entering the season, he was ranked 79th on CBSsports.com’s list of the top 100 players in college basketball.
If Columbia is to finally break through and win the Ivy title this year, Lo will be a big reason reason why. No other team in the conference has a player that can shoot as consistently well from distance as him.
What remains to be seen is how Lo will handle the attention around him, even though he doesn’t need to be “the guy” on offense at all times.
“I don’t think that’s necessarily his comfort zone,” Smith said. “It’s part of being good, having a target on his back.
“I think he’s gonna be fine.”
There are too many other good teams in the Ivy League (Princeton, Yale and Harvard immediately spring to mind) to definitively say that the target on Lo’s back extends to the rest of the Lions as well.
Yet the opportunities are there early on for Columbia to change that. Saint Joseph’s, Stony Brook, Kansas State and Northwestern all have the potential to be RPI-building victories.
The Lions are also the beneficiary of the usual soft start to the Ivy schedule. They play Cornell twice in one week, before heading up north to take on Dartmouth and then Harvard.
That Jan. 30 matchup against the Crimson will tell us a lot about whether or not 2015-16 is finally “the year.”