Written by Dylan Murphy
Back on March 2, Jeremy Lin and Spike Lee were at Levien Gym as Harvard squared off against the host Columbia Lions. Columbia basketball doesn’t normally draw huge crowds, but the celebrity fans drummed up so much interest that people were scalping tickets outside the gym. Harvard squeaked out a 77-70 overtime win, but it hardly dampened the mood around campus – especially since Columbia had played so well against a future NCAA Tournament team.
For Columbia’s junior point guard Brian Barbour, it wasn’t the ending he had hoped for. Even though he dropped 23 points and dished out five assists to lead the Lions, the loss left a bad taste in his mouth after almost knocking off the best of the Ivy League. But as he was walking off the court, a stranger came up to him:
“‘Someone would like to meet you,’” Barbour recalls the person saying. “So I went to the door, and waiting to meet me was Spike Lee, which was one of the cooler experiences I’ve had in my life. He said he liked the way I played and that he was going to try and catch another game next year.”
It isn’t all that surprising Spike Lee wanted to meet Columbia’s rising senior point guard – his 15.5 points and 4.4 assists per game earned him All-Ivy League honors. But Brian Barbour doesn’t look like your typical basketball player – his 6-1, 175-pound frame is unassuming and hardly intimidating. Yet his outstanding court vision and command of the game are clear, earning Barbour respect not only in the Ivy League but on a national level as well.
There was a time when Barbour was a 5-4 freshman at Monte Vista High School in Alamo, C.A., waking up at 6:00 a.m. every day to work on his game. But even after he grew and his game rounded into form, the attention just wasn’t there. So during his junior year, Barbour sent an email and game tape to every Ivy League school, his dream landing spot, hoping someone would take notice. Still, nothing.
One Division I school, however, did take an interest. Kyle Smith, then an associate head coach at St. Mary’s, hoped to keep the California native in his home state. But by this time Barbour was the star of his high school team, averaging 19.7 points and 6.0 assists during his senior season, and he just couldn’t give up his Ivy League aspirations. When Columbia head coach Joe Jones finally did come calling, Barbour turned down his official visit to St. Mary’s and committed to four years in New York City.
However, his freshman year didn’t pan out as he hoped. Barbour appeared in only 21 games, averaging a shade over 10 minutes a night. But he didn’t see it as a setback.
“That was probably the best thing to happen for me, because it kinda gave me an edge and made me want to work more and play more,” he says. “We had a very good point guard ahead of me in Pat Foley, and he showed me a lot of things and taught me a lot about college basketball.”
Before the 2010-2011 season, Joe Jones left the program for Boston College. When Barbour, one of three players on the coach selection committee, had a chance to interview the top five candidates, he ran into a blast from his past: Kyle Smith. Smith was eventually hired as Columbia’s new head coach, and he immediately handed the offense’s keys to his former recruit.
Barbour responded in a big way, earning All-Ivy Honorable Mention and leading the Lions to a 15-13 record in 2011, up from 11-17 the previous season. He even shot 91.7 percent from the charity stripe, good for fourth in all of college basketball (a feat he repeated in 2011-2012).
But Columbia wasn’t the only improving Ivy League team; as a whole, the league has been closing the gap in college basketball for a while now, becoming a factor in the NCAA Tournament in recent years. With Cornell busting through to the Sweet Sixteen in 2010 and Kentucky needing Brandon Knight to save the day on a last-second jumper against Princeton the following year, teams know the Ivy League won’t be a doormat in tournament play.
Even the NBA is noticing the northeastern talent – while Jeremy Lin might be the most obvious name, Harvard’s Keith Wright made his way onto the Dallas Mavericks summer league team this year, and Penn’s Zack Rosen led the Philadelphia 76ers summer league team in assists. Barbour doesn’t plan on letting his basketball career end in college either. But for now, it’s all about the 2012-2013 college basketball season for the Ivy League Player of the Year favorite.
“It’s been 43 years [since we’ve won the Ivy League],” he says. “That’s something that, if I could give up all of my individual accomplishments and bring an Ivy League title to Columbia, I think I would do that in a heartbeat.”
Columbia basketball hasn’t had much success in a long time. For All-Ivy League senior point guard Brian Barbour, the 2012-2013 season is about establishing a winning culture and making the Lions a fixture atop the Ivy League standings.