NEW YORK - On Friday, November 11, Columbia will begin its 2011-12 season on the road against the defending national champion UConn Huskies in a game that will be televised live on ESPNU at 7 p.m.
It's an exciting opportunity for the Lions to gauge where they stand against one of the nation's elite programs. Columbia enters the season looking to improve on its 15-13 record from a year ago, returning a host of talent at several key positions. At the same time, the Lions are seeking reinforcements in the frontcourt after the departure of four seniors who provided a great deal of size and physicality on the interior.
Columbia averaged 70.8 points per game last season in head coach Kyle Smith's first year at the helm. It was the highest scoring average for a Columbia squad in 18 years and the first winning season for a new Columbia head coach since Buddy Mahar's team went 17-9 in 1978-79.
"I wish we would've finished stronger last year but we did some good things," Smith said recently. "Overall I was pleased. We have hard-working, intelligent guys and they know what is expected and they're more prepared."
Columbia returns its starting backcourt from last season in All-Ivy League guards Noruwa Agho (first team) and Brian Barbour (honorable mention). Agho, now a senior, was the Ivy League's leading scorer last year and finished among the league's top ten in rebounding and assists, the only Ivy League player to accomplish that feat.
Barbour had a breakout sophomore season at the point for the Lions, averaging 13.3 points per game while posting a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. Barbour also led the team in steals and shot 91.7 percent from the free throw line.
"We feel like we have one of the best backcourts in the league with Barbour and Agho," Smith said. "We've received some strong leadership from those guys and Steve Egee. They've put in the effort and they want to be good."
The Lions have a number of candidates who could emerge alongside Agho and Barbour in the backcourt. Senior Matt Johnson could crack the starting lineup due to his size and versatility, while sophomores Meiko Lyles and Van Green saw extensive action last season. Lyles is on his way back from an offseason injury but started five games down the stretch of last season and was named Ivy League Rookie of the Week after the final week of the regular season. Green is a strong defender with the ability to score and could also provide a spark off the bench.
Egee, another senior, has the ability to shoot well from the perimeter, as does fellow senior Chris Crockett. Junior Dean Kowalski shifted the energy and momentum of a number of games last season while newcomers Noah Springwater and Darius Stevens could also see early action in the backcourt for Columbia.
In the frontcourt, juniors Mark Cisco and John Daniels are the most seasoned and provide complementary skills to each other and the rest of the lineup. Cisco started more than half of the 25 games he played last year and shot nearly 60 percent from the field while he led the team in blocked shots. Daniels was limited by injuries last year but shot well from the field (54.4 percent) and is among the team's best rebounders and interior defenders.
"JD brings toughness and defensive rebounding and Cisco can provide scoring and he's a great offensive rebounder," Smith said. "They are good complements to our guards."
Senior Blaise Staab and newcomer Cory Osetkowski will provide depth in the frontcourt during the early part of the year. Staab has the ability to score and rebound in traffic while the 6-10 Osetkowski has a good feel around the basket and gives the Lions some size and skill at the center position.
A few other newcomers add size and skill to the Columbia team this year. Alex Rosenberg, a 6-7 combo guard/forward, had a strong postgraduate year at the Peddie School, where he teamed with Skylar Scrivano, a 6-9 forward who has a long wingspan and the ability to influence shots underneath. Samer Ozeir, a product of Novi, Michigan, also gives the Lions the ability to stretch the defense. At 6-8, Ozeir can play inside and outside and score effectively.
"We want to improve and play well as a team," Smith explained when asked about the team's goals. "I feel good about where we are right now but we're always looking to get better."
The time to get better starts on Friday, November 11 in Storrs, Conn. as the Lions face Connecticut for a 7 p.m. game on ESPNU. The Lions then face Furman in their home opener on Monday, Nov. 14 at Levien Gymnasium at 7 p.m.