So it’s come to this these days in the Ivy League. The pretty much consensus third-best in the conference goes on the road at the defending national champion, leads for much of the game, battles toe-to-toe for 30+ minutes then falls.
And its fans are disappointed.
There are plenty of extenuating circumstances in Columbia’s 80-65 loss at UConn Monday night. The Huskies were only 4-4 coming in and the game was actually played closer to the upper west side than it was Storrs (Bridgeport) for two.
But when you start checking off the boxes needed to pull an upset, there were some things working against the Lions. First of all, the chances of UConn taking Columbia lightly were extremely slim with the Huskies struggling, Columbia looking so good against apparently invincible Kentucky, and UConn being fairly desperate to win games these days just in case they need to grab an at-large bid with the American conference crumbling around them.
Columbia did its thing and, quite frankly, had UConn chasing shadows for the first half and some of the second. But perhaps the biggest thing on the shopping list for an upset against a more athletic team is a cold shooting night, and the Lions didn’t get one. A UConn team that came in shooting 29.0% from behind the arc hit 9-of-16 Monday night, and so sometimes you just have to tip your cap to the opponent.
Or, in modern analytics Ivy League speak, say they “beat the scout”.
“We competed pretty well, I thought,” Columbia coach Kyle Smith said. “UConn hadn’t shot the ball that well this year. Kudos to them, they made some adjustments and they ‘beat the scout’ as we say. We were trying to keep them out of the paint and we did that pretty well, but we certainly didn’t defend the three as well as we have this year. They won that game by making shots. Proud of our guys, but I thought we had some opportunities, even in the second half.”
Saying Columbia is a consensus third in the Ivy is not meant to disparage the Lions, they believe, even without Alex Rosenberg, and given how they’ve played recently, why not? Maodo Lo did not enter the season with the hype of Yale’s Justin Sears or Harvard’s Wesley Saunders, but is carrying Columbia currently, averaging 18 points per game and accounting for almost half of the team’s steals (26 of 54).
Monday, he stood toe to toe with one of the nation’s best in Ryan Boatright and finished with 24 points.
“That’s a hard team to play,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “Maodo Lo is a terrific, terrific basketball player.”
(Boatright gave Lo perhaps the best compliment afterward when he said about his game, “he’s nice.”)
The Lions’ five-out Princeton-like offense (as some have pointed out to us Kyle Smith does not run a true Princeton offense) drew shot blocker extraordinaire Amida Brimah away from the basket and opened up the lane for back-door layups and Lo drives so much so the the Lions outscored UConn in the paint, 32-22. Luke Petrasek and Cory Osetkowski combined to go only 1-of-7 from behind the arc, and Ivy teams will take notice, though, if they continue to struggle from out there. Still, in just Petrasek’s third game of the season (injury), he had 10 points and four assists, including a big first-half dunk.
Alas, the downfall on this night came at the other end where UConn finished with a robust 1.31 points per possession. That looks bad, but Smith was put in a “pick your poison” situation. Against an athletic player like freshman Daniel Hamilton (who will give everyone regardless of major or mid-major matchup problems at 6’7”), Columbia needed to make him beat them from the outside. And he did, going 3-of-5 on three-pointers. Rodney Purvis came in shooting just 35.4% from the field, therefore Columbia focused on keeping Boatright out of the lane. Purvis answered by shooting 7-of-8 from the field and scoring 21 points.
As Smith pointed out, there were times where Columbia needed to close out better, and their zone in the second half (that it seemed to go to out of desperation) had plenty of holes. Also, Columbia missed several decent looks midway through the second half that led to UConn run-outs. But if UConn shoots the ball that well in conference play, it has a good chance to win the American title and be a fairly high seed in the NCAA Tournament (their record is slightly misleading anyway, as they are two buzzer-beaters from the same spot at Gampel Pavilion away from being 7-2 with losses to West Virginia and Duke).
“Purvis making those shots surprised us a little just because he hasn’t shot the ball that well this season,” Smith said. “But obviously he’s a good player, he’s starting for UConn.”
Those margins for error will be a little bit larger in Ivy League play, but not large enough where things will be easy, even in their first two conference tilts against an improved Cornell squad.
However, sometimes there’s only so much you can control, especially when you’re going to play at the national champions and you’re Columbia.
You just hope you get another shot at a similar team in March. With a big NCAA logo in the middle of the floor.