On the eve of the beginning of college basketball season, hopes are high that the Columbia men's basketball team can live up to heightened preseason expectations for the 2012-13 season.
With a returning All-Ivy League point guard, more size, and a unit that reaped the benefits from a summer trip to Europe, the Lions were selected to finish third in the conference's preseason poll and have garnered much praise from local and national media outlets coming into the season. Third year head coach Kyle Smith is not getting too wrapped up in the early hype for his team, but is quick to point out that Columbia's strong play and team unity developed in their 12-day trip to Spain and Italy has him eager to see what the season has in store.
"I don't think we couldn't have asked for anything better as far as the way that the Europe trip turned out for us," said Smith. "We had 10 guys that went over there, saw all the sights in Spain and Italy, and they bonded really well. It also allowed us to tweak some aspects of how we play, and worked on things that we normally wouldn't have the time to do."
One of those adjustments is putting 6-11 sophomore Cory Osetkowski and 6-9 bruising center Mark Cisco on the floor at the same time. With more and more teams playing a smaller lineup, Smith hopes to use his team's height advantage and create mismatches on the offensive end of the floor.
Cisco blossomed into one of the top big-men in the conference last year after averaging 10 points, on a 59-percent clip from the floor, and a team-best 7.2 rebounds per game. Osetkowski, who is now playing basketball exclusively after pitching on Columbia's baseball team in 2012, saw his minutes increase as last season went on, and developed nicely with the extra practice and games in Europe over the summer.
"I think Mark has a chance to be an all-conference player," Smith said. "It's just been a matter of him staying out of foul trouble and he's improved in that area. With Cory, having him focus solely on basketball will be huge for his development. He was always going to contribute for us, but now he has a chance to make an even bigger impact."
The Lions also have good depth in the frontcourt, boasting seasoned veteran John Daniels, sophomore small forward Alex Rosenberg, and an athletic first-year in Zach En'Wezoh. In addition, Smith expects to have Skylar Scrivano, who missed the entire 2011-12 season, ready to step in by December after a preseason setback.
Daniels will be looked upon for his gritty defense and rebounding. The 6-8 senior started 21 games last year, and averaged a career-best 5.4 rebounds. Smith has liked the way Rosenberg matured into his bigger role during the summer and preseason and hopes his averages of 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds will rise. En'Wezoh is a Kenneiwick, Wash. product, who is expected to be included in the rotation. The 6-8, 220-pounder is a strong rebounder and has good ability to get to the rim.
"I think size is a strength of this year's team," Smith said. "Right now, everyone's trying to play small and we're going to try the opposite. We're zigging when everyone else is zagging, so we'll see who has the advantage."
Not only is Columbia going to play bigger, but the Lions will try and get their post players more touches on the offensive end. That will be the job of senior point guard and first team Ivy Leaguer, Brian Barbour.
Barbour led the team with averages of 15.5 points and 4.4 assists last season. His ability to handle pressure, pass, drive the lane and get to the foul line has put him in the discussion for the possibility of being named a Cousy Award candidate as the nation's best point guard. The Alamo, Calif. native comes into the season with 237 assists, putting him ninth among the Lions' all-time leaders. With most of his weapons back, Barbour should continue to rise on Columbia's all-time assist list.
"The thing about Brian is he's comfortable being a leader," stated Smith. "He's the one person who's role hasn't changed much going into this year. As a coach, it gives you great ease when you can put the ball in the hands of an experienced point guard."
Barbour will be joined in the backcourt by sophomore Steve Frankoski, who returns after missing last season with a foot injury, to start the season. Frankoski is a deadly three-point shooter, who averaged 6.5 points on 34.1-percent shooting from beyond the arc during his rookie campaign. While most players that missed an entire year may have to worry about being rusty, Frankoski was healthy for the European tour and played in all five games overseas.
A pair of first-years, Grant Mullins and Maodo Lo will also see significant action. Mullins hails from Burlington, Ontario and is a strong all-around player that should take some of the ball-handling load off Barbour. Lo comes to Morningside Heights from Berlin, Germany and is a fierce on-the-ball defender with good handle as well.
"We're really pleased with the first-years' attitude and effort," Smith said. "Grant Mullins has been looking great and is competing for a spot as a starter. Maodo Lo is a very talented athlete. He's a guy that suits the Columbia way. He's really attracted to the culture of New York City and it made a lot of sense for him to be here. With all of these guys, they just have to show they can bring it everyday. It's a challenge playing on back-to-back nights when the Ivy League schedule starts."
With the blend of veterans and newcomers, Smith is anxious to see if what he saw over the summer and in the preseason translates to the grind of a 28-game schedule.
"This team reminds me a little bit of our Sweet 16 team at Saint Mary's," said Smith. "That year we went 6-11, 6-11, 6-7, so very similar to what we're trying to do here. That was a really skilled team with good guards as well. Right now, we look like them we'll find out if we can play like them."