When coach Kyle Smith’s Columbia basketball team looked at the Ivy League Preseason Media Poll, the Lions saw a sore sight: The team was ranked eighth … out of eight.
“We tried to take it with a grain of salt,” Smith said. “It was out there so we had to address it but hopefully it was good motivation.”
But Columbia now stands in a very different place. Currently, they sit in the middle of the pack even after losing twice this past weekend.
The Lions are 2-2 in Ivy play heading into weekend matchups with Princeton and Penn. Smith’s squad posted a stellar 11-6 nonconference record, which included a close loss at then-No. 2 Michigan State that helped to provide some early experience for a squad with no seniors.
“We are very young,” Smith said. “Us going into that environment and competing with them had to lift some of [Columbia’s players’] spirits, helping them believe they could compete with anybody.”
Columbia’s youth has been prevalent this year, especially at point guard. With Brian Barbour, the Lions’ second team All-Ivy point guard, graduating last May, the team has turned to a trio of sophomores — Isaac Cohen, Maodo Lo and Grant Mullins — to take over the backcourt.
Cohen, described by Smith as a “point-forward”, has been the Lions’ chief distributor, leading the squad in assists per game. Yet despite his 6-foot-4 frame, he also leads the squad on the boards, ranking first amongst Ivy guards in boards per game.
Meanwhile, Lo and Mullins have taken over some of Barbour’s scoring duties, putting up 14 and 12.8 points per game respectively. Lo has been particularly impressive, ranking second in the Ancient Eight in three-point shooting at 49 percent.
But Columbia’s leading scorer has been junior forward Alex Rosenberg, who has started to tap into his potential in a major fashion. After playing in the Maccabiah Games last summer, Rosenberg has improved across the board.
Smith was happy with Rosenberg’s progress after the junior struggled at times the past two years.
“Some kids would maybe hang their heads and doubt themselves, but he has gone the other way,” Smith said. “He’s determined to prove that he’s a capable player and he’s been really good for us this year.
“A lot of it is that he’s committed himself to [the weight room] and gotten stronger and improved his shooting.”
And while Rosenberg has split time between starting and coming off the bench, he has been the Lions’ most consistent force on the offensive end, scoring in double-digits in each of Columbia’s last 16 games.
Yet with all of those weapons on the offensive end and strong defenders like junior Meiko Lyles at the other end, the Lions have still been missing one of their biggest impact players — junior Steve Frankoski.
Frankoski, a Florham Park, N.J., native, is known for his three-point shot, his quick release and strong accuracy. As a sophomore last year, he helped lead Columbia to an upset over Harvard with a 27-point effort on 9-for-12 shooting.
But his junior year, like much of his time at Columbia, has been plagued by injuries, limiting him to just four appearances on the year.
“He has one of the best attitudes I’ve ever coached, and he’s obviously in a difficult situation,” Smith said. “But he hasn’t been fazed one bit. His leadership has been outstanding.
“We haven’t been shooting the ball as well lately so maybe he’ll get some cracks here.”
Despite Frankoski’s absence, the Lions have still found a way to have success, in contrast to their preseason ranking.
And with 10 Ivy contests remaining this year, including one at the Palestra on Saturday, Columbia is determined to turn the corner as a program.
“It takes time,” Smith said. “Hopefully, we’ll keep pushing through and reap the rewards here.”
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