The only thing surprising about the news was its timing: hours before Columbia was set to host UC Irvine in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament final, a report that coach Kyle Smith would accept the same position at the University of San Francisco as soon as Thursday emerged from TV station KPIX.
Smith’s departure, confirmed with an announcement from USF Tuesday, has been a topic of discussion for years, more so now after he coached the Lions this year to what is one of their best seasons ever — a school-record 25 wins, plus the first postseason championship banner of any kind in Levien Gym. Add in the fact that three head coaching jobs opened up in the West Coast Conference this year — where Smith spent almost a decade as an assistant at Saint Mary’s — and the concept became more “probability” than “possibility.”
The CIT championship is the end of an era for Columbia basketball. As Smith goes, so too will most of the seniors that made the Lions relevant in the Ivy League for the first time in years: Maodo Lo, Alex Rosenberg and Isaac Cohen (Grant Mullins has a fifth year of eligibility).
“This program, I’m really excited for next year in the sense that people discount us because we lose these four guys, but these guys, going through the process, young guys, they’ll be ready. They’ve been around it long enough,” said Smith after Columbia’s 80-65 win over NJIT in the CIT semifinals on Sunday.
Columbia’s rise has coincided with the elevation of the Ivy League around it. The league’s representative in the NCAA Tournament has won at least one game in three out of the last four seasons. The concept of a two-bid Ivy League has transformed from a half-joking Twitter hashtag to a reality in the women’s bracket.
Smith exits right as the Lions were on the precipice of breaking through. Had they not come up just short twice against Princeton, their regular season finale against Yale could have been a de facto playoff for the title.
“You know how if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it and it doesn’t make a sound? That’s how I feel about the Ivy League,” Smith said. “I’ve been screaming at the top of my lungs that there’s really good teams [here]and this [CIT run] helps prove that.”
The West Coast Conference, Smith’s destination, provides a model that the Ivy League should seek to emulate in some parts and avoid in others.
On the top end, the WCC boasts a mid-major powerhouse in Gonzaga, to go along with two NCAA Tournament at-large bid contenders in Saint Mary’s and BYU. So long as coach Tommy Amaker stays put, Harvard — with its unparalleled brand equity and its incoming recruiting class ranked 11th on ESPN.com — has the potential to play that part in the Ancient Eight.
Right now, there are three viable candidates to fill those contender roles going forward. Yale is coming off a win in the NCAA Tournament over Baylor. Princeton finished a close second this year, earned an NIT bid and returns all of its key contributors. Penn, slowly rebuilding under Steve Donahue, has a built-in scheduling advantage that most other mid-majors don’t: four guaranteed games a year against power teams (two at home), thanks to the Big 5.
But the WCC is soft at the bottom. No team in the conference outside of the aforementioned triumvirate has reached the NCAA Tournament since 2002. Things were so bad this year that Saint Mary’s failed to receive an at-large bid after falling to Gonzaga in the conference tournament finals despite a 27-5 record, done in in part by a resume softened by the low RPIs of weak schools in the WCC.
“Our league really needs to step it up and take notice,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few on Selection Sunday. “It’s time for some of these other institutions to start picking it up. They’re really dragging the top three down.”
The Ivy League finds itself at a similar tipping point. Brown and Dartmouth haven’t sniffed an Ivy title in years. Cornell has collapsed after Donahue left following its 2010 Sweet Sixteen run. The latter two of those schools just fired their coaches. If Columbia slides backward once Smith’s players are gone, the league will lose precious depth and opportunities for its programs to pick up “quality wins” (whatever those mean these days) as they build tournament-worthy profiles.
While Smith attempts to work his turnaround magic in San Francisco, Columbia Athletic Director Peter Pilling will need to choose his next coach carefully.
So far, Pilling has hired well. Poaching Al Bagnoli was a coup and could be the shot in the arm that the football team has needed for years. At first glance, Megan Griffith appears to be a good get for the women’s program, having coached and recruited under Courtney Banghart at Princeton.
But neither of those hires will have the long-run repercussions that his upcoming decision for the men’s basketball team will have.
The right hire will keep the program — and league’s — ascent going, solidifying Columbia’s status as a consistent contender and making the league stronger from top to bottom. The wrong one could make the league too top-heavy and set everyone back.