If you had told Kyle Smith over the summer that Columbia would set their high-water mark in Ivy wins during his tenure and the Ivy title would be clinched on Levien Gymnasium’s sub-sea level court, he would have been elated.
Even if you had told him that was a trick question, it was hard to imagine even nine months ago that this would be the Lions team that won 10 Ivy games for the second time since Ronald Reagan took office, title or no. At various points in the last year, there was a distinct possibility that none of Smith’s four seniors (Isaac Cohen, Maodo Lo, Grant Mullins and Alex Rosenberg) would take the floor for him ever again. Despite the hardships suffered as individuals and the fact that Yale and Princeton were on their schedule four times this season, Columbia is going back to the postseason for the second time in three years. Kyle Smith believes it was this mismashed class of 2016 that turned the tide of the program from mediocrity to one that is on the rise and can ascend to a title in the near future, even without these players being a part of it. This is the story of how it all came together despite nearly falling apart.
The “humble warrior”
Even though he is the player least likely to be playing basketball next year, the member of the 2015-16 Columbia Lions that Kyle Smith raves about the most is his southpaw point forward Isaac Cohen. After a game earlier this year in which he shot 2-for-6 from the floor yet totaled nine assists to lift the Lions to victory, Smith declared that he wanted to nominate Cohen for the Columbia Athletics Hall of Fame.
During Cohen’s freshman year, even as the Lions were struggling in Ivy play, Smith believed he had a future as a coach if he wanted it. When I followed up with Smith on both fronts, he stood by his assessments of the “pear-shaped” Cohen with a chuckle. Smith praised his work ethic and feel for the game, calling him a “humble warrior” and “as good of a passer as I ever coached.” He praised Cohen’s high school years, noting that he came from a program that won all four years, allowing him to bring a winning mentality to campus. Cohen isn’t a great scorer on his own but is someone who facilitates the offense and has defended all five positions for the Lions at points this season. Perhaps the one thing Smith lamented when I spoke with him is “sometimes we have to beg him to look at the basket, he’s a 60 percent shooter, he needs to shoot more!” But aside from everything on the court that Cohen provided the Lions, it was what he meant off the court that stood out most to Smith.
After suffering a knee injury earlier this season, Smith worried Cohen had played his last game for the Lions, a recurring theme with the four players in this article. The injury itself was not necessarily season-threatening, but if the team really took off without Cohen, it would have been hard for Smith to justify giving him minutes upon his return since the coach likes to keep a short bench. Even away from the game, Cohen put the team first and helped show younger players how to run offensive sets even though he couldn’t run them himself. The time with underclassmen in practice furthered Smith’s belief that Cohen can be a coach in the future; the senior’s photographic memory, people skills and aptitude for the Xs and Os of the game means Smith wouldn’t be surprise if he’s holding a clipboard sooner rather than later.
Maodo Lo is fortunately the only member of this class who has not suffered a nearly career-ending injury, yet there were points this summer when he nearly left the program after his stellar 2014-15 season. There was a brief flirtation with the NBA draft and a chance to get what Smith called a “really nice paycheck” from some professional teams in Germany and Spain that would have wiped out his last year of college eligibility. But Smith said that Lo really wanted to finish his degree at Columbia, something that brings us back to how he convinced The Chairman to come to Morningside Heights in the first place.
The recruiting process was difficult since he came over to prep school from Germany with attention from many schools. Rather than doggedly pursuing Lo at first, it was Lo’s prep school coach who pushed the German import on Smith, telling him that Lo would be a good fit for the Ivy League, a feeling confirmed to Smith by a member of the Houston Rockets organization. Luckily for the Lions, when they first went to see Maodo play in High School, there were no other schools at the game. The other appealing factor, per Smith, was New York City itself (his mother Elvira Bach is an acclaimed artist, now with a showing at the Guggenheim) and the organization and structure within the program, destroying any lingering doubts that there would be a culture shock coming over.
Maodo Lo is quite simply the best Columbia basketball player I’ve seen since I stepped onto campus in September 2009. There might have been better scorers and better distributors, and even some who can claim to defend as well on the perimeter, but no one put it all together like The Chairman.
His leap from freshman to sophomore year, then from sophomore to junior year to step up with Rosenberg’s absence, were astounding to watch. His acclimation to playing a full season with Mullins and Rosenberg for the first time this year was something that Smith worried about but all three players handled extremely well. Lo’s crossover is something out of a videogame, and he’s honed his three-point shot from corner and wing, with the ability to catch and shoot or pull up. He can run point guard when necessary, and he can lock down any team’s best defender without it affecting his play on offense.
While Smith has his reasons for pushing Isaac Cohen as a Hall of Famer, there’s no doubt that Maodo Lo should be there as well. But let’s be honest, there is room for both. As for Lo’s plans beyond graduation? Smith would not give me an answer as to where he is leaning, but given that there have been scouts from at least six NBA teams to see him this year as well as the interest from Europe last summer, it’s an easy assumption to make that someone will be cutting a check to have The Chairman suit up for their team next fall.
“Maybe the best player we have”
Grant Mullins had the unenviable position of coming to campus with a decent amount of hype, yet being “stuck” his freshman year behind senior All-Ivy guard Brian Barbour. It’s the type of situation that can derail a young player if he cannot get the playing time he expects, if the coaching staff is not focused enough on his development or if the senior treats him poorly. Luckily for Mullins, all three of those factors went in his favor. Mullins forced his way into playing time with his sharpshooting ability and ability to handle the ball enough to give Barbour a break. Smith believed in his aptitude because of the athleticism in his family (his sister played basketball at Harvard) and ultimately believed Mullins was the first difference maker he had brought into the program. Instead of ignoring the freshman, Barbour bought that Mullins was the future of the program, with Smith going as far to say that Barbour was as important to the 2016 team as anyone else on the roster via the work ethic he instilled in Mullins, which Mullins then passed onto the players after him.
Smith believed that due to Mullins’ continued issues with concussions, the Canadian had played his final game for the Lions. That belief affected Smith’s recruiting process, forcing him to look for more point guards to bring in for this season. Fortunately, Mullins is 100 percent healthy and rebounded to the point where Smith calls him, despite the talent around him, “maybe our best player” on the current roster.
Mullins’ stock has gone up and down like a roller coaster since he first set foot on campus. Now it’s on the rise again after a strong senior season. Smith revealed that Mullins has been granted a fifth-year waiver and will be playing another year of college ball next season. He already has drawn interest from California, Stanford and Vanderbilt, in addition to some other high-major, academically inclined schools. After his showing against Villanova as a freshman, when he scored 14 points (all in the second half) in Columbia’s 75-57 upset of the Wildcats, there was no doubt in many Columbia fans’ minds that Mullins could compete on a larger stage. Next season, he will have that opportunity.
Kyle Smith could not believe he was the only coach in the gym watching Alex Rosenberg at Millburn High School in New Jersey. Smith looked around as Rosenberg dominated a game and thought, how does a 6-7 point forward not have a [college] destination yet? Rosenberg came to campus with an alpha male mentality – not even having to share the ball with Kyrie Irving in AAU could make him feel like he should be a second option. This caused him to butt heads with the coaching staff at times. Even if they didn’t always get along at first, Smith knew it was because Rosenberg’s heart was into the game, not just his own accolades.
It is impossible to write about Rosenberg (and it’s a shame we never got him a cool nickname like Lo) for this website without discussing The Charge, an offensive call on a would-be buzzer beater against Harvard his junior year. His personality and the robbery of that official’s decision could have sent the season spiraling out of control, but it was Rosenberg who calmly righted the ship starting the next night, which Smith praised. His 14-for-15 effort from the foul line helped Columbia defeat Dartmouth and get the team back to their winning ways en route to a postseason bid and a pair of wins in the CIT.
After Rosenberg’s ascent during his junior season, it seemed like everything was set up for a Lions run at a title going into last season, until Rosenberg suffered a Jones fracture in his foot, putting his career in jeopardy. Even if his foot recovered in time to return for the 2015-16 season, given that he was forced to drop out of school, any other college could have poached Rosenberg with his one remaining year of eligibility. Luckily, as Smith said, “no one is prouder to be associated with Columbia basketball than Alex Rosenberg,” which made the decision an easy one. After a slow start to the season while getting healthy and re-acclimated to the offense, Rosenberg starred in Ivy play, and his one-legged buzzer beater against Harvard will likely go down as the moment by which we will remember him, which is certainly much more than many could have hoped for just one year ago.
What’s next for Columbia
Now that these four are on their way out, what’s the next step for Columbia basketball? Smith has a definitive vision for the program both on court and off. While he’s pleased with fan support for the Ivy home games, including multiple sellouts again this season, he wants Columbia basketball to be an event even for nonconference home games given that they are the only Division I school in Manhattan. Even if they’re not winning the Ivy title, he expects them to be in the postseason every year. While the loss to Yale Saturday night likely vanquished their slim postseason NIT hopes, it’s a tournament that Smith has been targeting, and the Lions would have been on the precipice of it had they won. He believes the brand of the program has grown and even with a weaker squad next year, he will not stop scheduling major conference “challenge” games. Even though the Lions were near the bottom of the league last season, the fast start and strong showing in a loss at Kentucky led people to believe the Lions actually had a good season, much to Smith’s joy. Smith additionally noted how at St. Mary’s he was an assistant on a team that graduated six seniors then made the Sweet 16 the next season in 2010.
Smith hopes Columbia’s strong (but yet to be announced) recruiting class as well as players like Kyle Castlin, C.J. Davis and Lukas Meisner getting more minutes and responsibilities can result in the Lions make a similar leap in 2016-17. However, the lasting legacy for this senior class of 2016 might not be how close they came to not playing together, their buzzer-beating wins, heartbreaking losses, or postseason run(s?), but instead just how hard they are to replace once they leave campus in May.