After a 2013-14 season in which Columbia amassed 21 wins (the most since ’68) and nabbed a spot in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, or CIT (the program’s first post-season appearance since ’68), expectations are naturally on the up n’ up in Morningside Heights for the campaign at hand. And then you remember this: Everybody’s back.
Kyle Smith enters his fifth year at the helm of the Lions well aware of the reasons that year of 1968 resonates so resoundingly. Way back when, Columbia had clout. There were top-10 finishes and post-season appearances. Big games and an energized fan base. The CIT run last spring really got it buzzing again.
That the 45-year-old Smith has Columbia back on track for perennial post-season bids shouldn’t come as a surprise, though. After he was hired by Columbia in 2010, Randy Bennett, the head coach at Saint Mary’s, where Smith had been an assistant for the previous nine years, said “[Smith] will be very successful. He has been a huge part of what we’ve done at Saint Mary’s. It’s been he and I together—it’s been like having a co-coach.”
Now, the Lions return a very talented core, led by 6-7 senior forward Alex Rosenberg (16.0 points) and 6-3 junior Maodo Lo (14.7 points). Like the rest of the roster, both have been busy this summer. Rosenberg plied his trade with the Uptowners in the Nike Pro City League. Lo…well, he trained with the German national team. Both reflect the type of player Smith recruits to Columbia. Smart, versatile—and man, can they make it rain. The Lions hit 278 three-pointers last season (Rosenberg and Lo combined for 127 of them), smashing the previous program record. They tethered that with a blistering effort on the opposite end, finishing in the top 30 nationally in scoring defense.
That well-rounded approach led to a third place finish in the Ivy League standings. Now, they want a title. It’s more than just lip service, too. Columbia ticks all the boxes you look for in a contender. They put in work this summer. They’re deep, they’re talented, they’re hungry.
They might just get that conference crown. Smith knows expectations will be raised—now, it’s a matter of handling them and putting in the consistent performances that lead to sustained success. Smith took time recently to speak with SLAM. Here’s the transcript:
SLAM: This summer, you attended the Saint Mary’s basketball alumni event. (Smith was a Gaels assistant from 2001-10). You even presided over the three-point contest. (Seems fitting—as a senior at Hamilton College, Smith hit 51 percent of his threes, which still stands as the program record.) How much fun was it to go back to Moraga?
Kyle Smith: It was awesome. I was really grateful. It was probably the best nine years of my life there, so I’m always happy and thankful they include me in those things. Anyone who’s ever been up on that campus, or around the program, understands that it’s a family atmosphere. I met my wife there, she went to Saint Mary’s. So we’re usually watching those games up late at night on the East Coast, now.
Randy [Bennett] and I are really good friends, and we’ve followed each other’s programs. Then, to see all the guys who came back was a testament to the wonderful job Randy has done, building the community there and the culture. The basketball program fits the culture of the community. It’s unique. There’s not many places like that. It’s something we’re trying to build at Columbia.
SLAM: You finished last season with a strong run to the CIT quarterfinals. What has it been like to witness the growth of this program, in conjunction with the elevated play throughout the Ivy League?
KS: We’re definitely getting involved with better guys, and that’s more a product of our recent success, and the league’s success. The league is doing a great job recruiting; there’s really good players here. From the get-go, and I told Randy Bennett this when I got the job—this job is pretty good. The feedback, the response you get…you don’t know until you call as the coach at Columbia, but there’s certain people that really resonates with. Obviously good students are always going to be interested, but even more so…and some of the people I wasn’t familiar with.
Columbia hasn’t been great for awhile, but when it was…and John Feinstein, who wrote a Washington Post article on that CIT quarterfinal game (against Yale), he grew up here, and this place is precious to him. And guys who were following those Columbia teams in the ’60s and early ’70s, those guys are like 65, 68 years old, and they’re still…some of them are still in the area, and they still want to see us do well.
So there’s an international flavor, there’s a national flavor. Then there’s the local people in the neighborhood—and the island (Manhattan) itself has three million people, so it’s a good little spot. We drew well when I first got here, and it’s only getting better. It’s a surprisingly fun place to coach, and it’s only getting better.
SLAM: You were picked to finish eighth in the Ivy League last season. You finished tied for third. Was there an edge within this team, that you were better than predicted?
KS: It’s a little odd. The year before, ’12-13, we were picked to do well (the Lions were picked to finish third in the pre-season poll), and we got hurt and banged up, lost a lot of tight games. That’s all part of building a program. I told our guys at the end of that season, the year before, you won’t hear it from the media coverage, or from your administrators, your teachers, your peers, but you guys are close. We’re close. Only us in this locker room will believe it, but I felt good about it. The guys in this program…we’d beat Villanova, we beat Harvard—those were both NCAA Tournament teams in ’12-13.
We had two bouts of the flu during league, we lost some close games, and we were still pretty good. But the team attitude and the work ethic were good, the pieces there to have a program were good, the buy-in, despite those tough losses, was still there. Because nothing brings out the worst in people like losing. They stayed with it. I thought we had a chance, because of that.Now, this is my first year where the seniors are the guys I recruited. That takes time. And the guys we inherited were good kids, and good players, too, but there’s something a little more special when you’re playing for the guy that recruited you. I’m sitting in their living room, saying, Hey, this is what I see for our program; this is our vision for you. It’s going to be hard work, you need to have a great attitude, it’s not going to be easy.
But now, it’s their program. It’s not about coming to play for Kyle Smith at Columbia. It’s, This is Columbia Basketball. This is how we do things. That’s been fun. Hopefully, we match expectations. It’ll be tougher. We’ll have a little higher expectations this year.
SLAM: You look down the roster, and everybody’s back. After the success of last season, does that create a singular atmosphere, and a challenge during the offseason—to continue to build?
KS: Yeah. Now, it’s about handling success, and having internal motivation to be better, and knowing that you’re the hunted. It’s always easier to be the hunter, to be the underdog. We have to deal with that, being expected to win games that Columbia hasn’t been expected to win in the past.
We return 100 percent of our points and minutes, everything’s back. We’ve got two really good freshmen coming in, too (a pair of 6-4 guards, Kyle Castlin and Nate Hickman)—they’re the right character, the right talent, and they’re going to be good players. So that’s going to change things a little bit.
We’re playing UConn and Kentucky in non-conference. It’s all about giving our best shot in January and February, when the league begins.
These guys deserve it. We’ve raised the bar. Our non-conference schedule is a little bit more competitive—obviously, when you have the national champ and the national runner-up—that can humble you. You find out where you are. So we’ll see how we compete.
SLAM: Last season, you played Michigan State in East Lansing, when they were ranked (second) in the nation, and you gave them all they could handle…
KS: They’d just beat Kentucky, and if they beat us, they’d be No. 1 in the nation. We gave them a good scare, we were tied with four minutes to go, we were up in the second half, but down the stretch, their veterans made some plays. They had some pretty good pieces.
SLAM: There seems to be a theme of self-motivation among the players on the roster. For example, last February, Meiko Lyles gets a rare start against Brown, and responds with 21 points.
KS: That’s your vision and your hope for a team. We talk a lot about being a team, how everyone has a role, that our attitudes are right. We had Grant Mullins, who was a good starter for us, and he went down with a concussion and missed the last half of the league season. That forced Meiko Lyles and Steve Frankowski to step up, and Meiko has been a good contributor before, and it would be easy for guys…Meiko used to start—so for him to never hang his head about it, and then, he got us a big win, his 21 points were huge. He’s tough. We’ve got a good thing, through the team.
SLAM: The goal among the players this season is to win an Ivy League title. Everyone was on campus this summer, save Maodo Lo—and he was playing with the German national team. Did you like what you saw in the offseason?
KS: It comes from them. I always tell the guys—and the professors don’t want to hear this—but this is going to be the most challenging class you take, to have a winning program and contend for Ivy League championships. Regardless, you’re going to make memories of this experience. It takes hard work to make the best memories. They’ve handled it. We have good leadership, with (senior 6-2 guard) Steve Frankoski…some of these guys will probably be coaches some day. When we were picked eighth ahead of last season, I did some self-evaluating, just to dig in a little deeper in some areas. I had to do some self-evaluating, to see where we could do a better job as a staff. But I said, if it’s always coming from the coaching staff, coming from me…we won’t be good until it goes from the guys having discipline to having self-discipline.
Understanding, Maodo has a chance to play on the German national team, and that’s great. That’s a great opportunity, that he’s willing to do that. Some guys do both—they have a good summer here, and they do an internship. But some guys just passed on the internship, and Alex Rosenberg’s a good case in point. He’s a first-team all league guy, and he did an internship for three-and-a-half weeks at the start of this summer, and that was enough. For the second half of June, then through July and August, he was just working on his game. He wants to have the best…he wants this to be the best team in Columbia history, or one of them, and he’s already going to go down as one of the better players, certainly in the last 20 years. And if he does what we think he’s capable of doing, this year, he’ll be one of the best players in Columbia history. You root for them. It hasn’t been easy, but these guys are invested, and they want to see this thing through.
SLAM: You mention discipline, and the commitment it takes to bring a program to the level where you’re contending for a post-season berth year in, year out. Is that a marker, for you that these guys are bought in—that it’ll take concentration on both sides of the court to be really good?
KS: Absolutely. It’s the start of Year 5, and anyone that’s coached…nothing happens overnight, but I knew we were decent in some areas. But I thought that if we were ever going to contend, and I’m looking at some of the teams that win the league, you’re obviously going to have to play both sides of the floor. When I first got here, to Columbia, we scored the ball pretty well, and we made some commitments to change and get our defense better. We got more size around the rim. From a recruiting standpoint, what we do offensively takes such a certain skill set, so it’s tough to find. Sometimes, the guys we get are going to be skinny types—they’ve got length, and size, and skill, but if they were strong, long and big, they’d be really hard to get. So we’ve had guys like Alex Rosenberg. He was probably 195 pounds when he came here; now, he’s 220. Luke Petrasek, he’s 6-10, 200 coming in, now he’s 215 as a sophomore—and we want to get him to 220.
We’re trying to concentrate on areas in which we can better. This year, we’re one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the country; now, we want to become a better offensive rebounding team. And that comes in Year 5. Year 1, we’re saying we’ve just got to compete, the goals are a little more modest, a little more general. Now, we’re getting more specific. Certain areas we want to get better. That’s going to be a big concentration. This summer, we sat down with the coaching staff of Wisconsin…and if you watch them, they never foul anybody. We’ve improved, and made a big jump there last year, and now we’re going to do the same thing, we want to make another jump—it’ll be one possession a game, and it might be one play per game, but a one-point difference might be two wins. Especially in this league. So, trying to change to where we defend, and can’t put people on the line. We’ve got to be disciplined in doing that. I got lucky enough, I was with an assistant with Wisconsin, and I asked him, What do you guys do? And he gave me some good things, and I said, Yeah, we can improve that.
SLAM: You’ve spoken about your coaching staff, and how success permeates it. This offseason, you added Derrick Phelps, who was a member of the ’93 North Carolina team that won the National Championship. How much do they help with what you’re trying to accomplish?
KS: They help every day. Some of it is sales, and we’re good in that area, but it means so much more when the guy sitting in your living room has done it—Phelps was at the highest level, and he won. He understands winning. I’d like to think the same about myself—I mean, I played Division III, but we were really good. I’ve coached at Saint Mary’s. I know what it’s like to build something. We went from two wins the year before we got there, and got it to where we won 25 in four years. (In Smith’s final season, ’09-10, the Gaels went to the Sweet 16.) And we sustained it. That’s the goal here.
Kevin Hovde played at Richmond. He was with Chris Mooney, and they won nine games, but then they went to the Sweet 16. They won the Atlantic-10 championship. Adam Hood might be the most impressive one. He won 84 games over four years at Air Force. I understand there’s different ways to skin a cat, there’s different ways to win, but the bottom line is, we’ve got some studs at this level. I value that. I look to my left in my office, and I’ve got Derrick here, and it’s thinking, he had four years of Dean Smith, one of the greatest coaches, ever. Carolina culture. He’s made of the right stuff. And he’s a New Yorker. He wants to be here. He played in Europe, and one of our best players is from Germany. One of his former teammates was coaching Maodo Lo on the German national team.
There’s a lot of tie-ins there. I think everything, kind of like the culture and community at Saint Mary’s…Derrick is a perfect fit. North Carolina graduate, Christ the King High School, great player, great person, smart guy. All those things. Check, check, check. It’s a shot in the arm for anyone who follows basketball. We’ve got a Carolina guy on our staff. That’s awesome. He’s very humble, and like you’d expect a Carolina guy to be. Shoot, he’s been in the big game! We’ve got a picture of him trapping Chris Webber—the kids don’t even know what it is. It’s for the parents. We always talk about it, but Derrick never brings it up.
SLAM: You mentioned those games against Kentucky (December 10) and UConn (December 22), on the road in two of the toughest places to play in the country. They come within a 12-day span. Is that a way to test yourself, to see what you learn ahead of the Ivy League?
KS: It’s funny. If you get a chance to play those teams, it’s not so much about timing—you take it whenever it happens. You’re a super-underdog in those situations. It’s a good experience, no matter what happens. If you win, then it’s about handling success; if you get drilled, then you know you’re not where you need to be. Then, there’s a whole different pressure once Ivy League starts. All bets are off. Everything goes back to zero, because everyone’s feeling the same pressure. Our goal, last year, was to come in Monday, after every weekend, and see where we were at, to see if we were still alive for the conference title. In Game 12, at Harvard, we were still alive. If we win that game, they’ve got to go two on the road, then two at home. It would’ve been tough for them. And well, they taught us a lesson. In the five previous games we played them, we’d lost two double-overtime games. But that game last season, it was their senior night, and with those guys, and their experience, they brought it. I thought we were ready to play, that we would compete—and we got drilled. So it’s a process. As a coach, you have no idea what to expect in Ivy League play.
Coming in, you think you do. In the West Coast Conference, with Saint Mary’s, we played back-to-back games. But to do it six weeks straight, and have some emotion available in the tank…that’s why it’s so important to have veterans in this league, guys who’ve been through the wars. That’s where Harvard excels…and even they struggled a little at the start of the league last season. They lost to Yale, and that next game against us, it could’ve really turned the league a little bit. We had a shot waved off for a charge that would have won the game, and had we won, that would have put us one game behind them, and they were a game behind Yale—we would have been two behind Yale. If we’d won, maybe by the last weekend, we would’ve still been alive in the conference race. So you learn from all these things. We knew we had everybody coming back, so it was about keeping it going, and keeping it together mentally. We did a good job. Now, it’s about handling expectations. We were pretty good last year. Now, how do you become great?