Lions Are ‘Dogs Against Huskies

Columbia, pictured left, is playing the role of David in its opener against defending national champion UConn. (Photo credit: Caravaggio)

These are scenes from UConn and Columbia’s respective attempts at Midnight Madness. In front of 16,000 fans in the XL Center there’s Andre Drummond, the No. 1 recruit in the country according to and likely next year’s top pick in the NBA Draft, with a ridiculous windmill alley-oop off a pass off the backboard from last year’s Illinois Mr. Basketball Ryan Boatwright. In a basement on 118th street, there’s Wushu.

It’s fair to say there’s more excitement surrounding this UConn team than there is for Columbia.  But here at Ivy Hoops Online, we’re most excited to see how one of our own can fare against the defending national champions.  On paper, the Lions are in deep trouble. UConn is a consensus top-10 team, favored to win the Big East. They’re led by preseason All-American guard Jeremy Lamb, feature two more starters in the Naismith Watch List’s top 50 players (Alex Oriakhi and Drummond), and have one of the best recruiting classes in the country.

Here’s the case for Columbia: the Lions return most of their key players including the incumbent Ivy League scoring champion Noruwa Agho (the only player on either team on his conference’s first team last year). Four of the team’s top five scorers come back. Coach Smith’s squad will have much greater continuity from last season than Coach Calhoun’s. In the recent past, Columbia has been able to keep it respectable against the top teams in the country. Their last game against a top-10 saw the Lions within nine points of Syracuse at the half before losing 85-60 back in 2009. Before that, they lost by single digits to Notre Dame in ’05 and UCLA in ’01.

The other good news? Kemba Walker is gone. On Friday, as his former teammates get ready to start their season, he will be playing in an exhibition game against Lincoln High School in Brooklyn as part of Under Armour’s “Are You From Here” tour.[1] The Kemba-less defending national champions will be searching for their new identity when they open their season at home against Columbia. Sure, Jeremy Lamb had a great tournament, but can he be the alpha dog? Oriakhi proved himself as a capable rebounder and Kemba-protector, but he hasn’t proven that he can be a scoring force inside. The highly touted freshmen are playing their first game at this level.

All that being said, this game shouldn’t be close. UConn may have the best frontcourt in the country.  Columbia may have the worst frontcourt in the Ivy League. The Lions graduated their best rebounder and strongest defensive presence in Asenso Ampim. Mark Cisco showed some scoring touch last season, but was less impressive on the boards and on defense. He’ll be joined in the frontcourt by an unproven freshman class that has yet to face competition on the level of Oriakhi and Drummond.[2]

If Columbia can keep it respectable in Storrs, it would be a great boost for the team’s Ivy League chances. Coming off a 14-13 record and a 5th place Ivy finish, Columbia is at a crossroads. They could build from the increasing success of the last few years or sink back into Dartmouth-level mediocrity. Our venerable leader picked Columbia to finish 7th in the Ivy League, but with an encouraging result in Storrs and a few opportune bounces of the ball along the way this team could finish as high as 3rd. (Ed. Note: Keep dreaming…)

[1] And in case you were wondering, Ben Okwandu will be starting training camp with the NBDL’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers after being traded from the Maine Red Claws last Friday. Columbia’s key loss from last season, Asenso Ampim, will be beginning his third month at Harvard Medical School.

[2] Although freshman forward Samer Ozeir did compete in the 2010 U-18 FIBA Asian Championships for Lebanon where he faced exciting young talents such as Japan’s Toru Minagawa and Kazakhstan’s Alexey Verechshagin.

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