Columbia seeking to challenge Harvard, Princeton in the Ivy League

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In most years, the Ivy League is nothing more than a blip on the radar of the college basketball scene. This year, however, is unlike most years.

Harvard garnered national attention even prior to the season beginning after defeating New Mexico in last year’s NCAA Tournament and returning two of their top players in Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry.

After their 9-1 start to the season, Princeton made it known they were more than capable of challenging the Crimson in the Ivy League. In fact, the notion of #2BidIvy began appearing in the Twitter world – that’s all but a dream now after the Tigers lost to Portland and Pennsylvania.

One Ivy League team that is receiving very little press is Columbia.

Perhaps it is because they were picked to finish eighth in the Ivy League, or because they graduated Brian Barbour – their top player on last year’s team that finished 12-16 overall and 4-10 in the Ivy League.

Expectations were low, no doubt. Truth be told, however, preseason accolades are meaningless, and Columbia is proving that notion.

“There’s obvious motivation [being picked to finish eighth in the league],” Columbia head coach Kyle Smith told NBC Sports following their home win over Stony Brook. “Even with our team last year, they did a good job staying together and I think that carries over to this year…It’s a helpful motivation.”

It was clear early in the season that Columbia was much better than many projected. After nearly beating MAAC-favorite Manhattan in their second game of the season, Columbia went to Michigan State and trailed the Spartans 54-53 at the final media timeout. They wound up losing 62-53, but these two games were a harbinger of things to come. 

Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell echoed how tough Columbia will be come Ivy League play, “Columbia is tough. You know, when someone told me Columbia was picked eighth in this league, I said, ‘Are you kidding me. If they’re not in the top two, I’m going to be stunned.’”

After beginning the season 5-5, Columbia has won seven of eight games, with their best win during this stretch coming against Stony Brook. Against the Seawolves, Alex Rosenberg and Maodo Lo combined for 53 of Columbia’s 68 points. Now a junior who leads the team in scoring at 13.9 ppg, Rosenberg has been leaned on heavily by Smith.

“Alex has been a sending. I tell everyone, no one cares more about being a good player than him. He’s one of the first guys we brought in, and he had the luxury of getting some early minutes in his career. There were some pits and valleys, but that’s to be expected as a young player. That experience has paid off.”

Columbia is off to a 1-0 start in the Ivy League after beating Cornell this past weekend. The Lions will embark on their most challenging stretch of the season over their next five games as all of them are on the road; the back-to-back swing against Princeton and Pennsylvania is always a daunting one.

“It’s really challenging playing back to back games. That second game, it’s really about getting yourself mentally ready to play. You still scout and everything, but it’s a little different. It’s about staying fresh.”

Smith has been around the coaching block having been an assistant at San Diego, Air Force, and St. Mary’s for nearly 20 years prior to coming to Columbia, and the challenge of playing Ivy League-coached teams is unparalleled.

“I’ve coached in three leagues as a college coach, and by far the best prepared teams I’ve ever encountered are in the Ivy League. The program I coached in before Columbia – St. Mary’s with Randy Bennett, a Rick Majerus disciple – our edge was in preparedness and having our opponent so well scouted. In this league, everyone knows each other so well – other coaches are barking out plays before we do.”

An area of concern is how Columbia faded down the stretch in the past three seasons. Last year, for instance, the Lions began 9-6, only to finish 12-16. But, 2014 isn’t last season, nor is it three seasons ago. Assuming they continue trending upward, this is a team that has the looks of a top tier Ivy League squad who may challenge Harvard for an Ivy League crown.

VIDEO: Mixtape for North Carolina-bound Nassir Little

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Nassir Little is one of the most improved players in the high school basketball ranks, going from being a guy that was a borderline five-star prospect to being a potential No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and athleticism to burn, he has all the makings of being one of the switchable wing defenders that are en vogue in the modern era of the NBA.

Former UNC star Phil Ford has surgery for prostate cancer

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina says former point guard Phil Ford has had surgery for prostate cancer.

Team spokesman Steve Kirschner said Wednesday that Ford underwent the procedure Tuesday after he was diagnosed during his annual physical. Dr. Eric Wallen, the UNC physician who is treating Ford, says the cancer was caught early because Ford “has been proactive regarding his health.”

Ford played for Dean Smith in the 1970s and scored 2,290 points, a mark that stood as the school record until Tyler Hansbrough broke it in 2008. Ford also spent 12 seasons as an assistant to Smith after a seven-year NBA career in which he was the rookie of the year in 1979.

Bruce Pearl: ‘Good chance’ Auburn returns four players testing the waters

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Bruce Pearl told reporters on Monday that there is a “good chance” that his Auburn program will return all four of the players that are currently testing the waters of the NBA draft.

“I think there’s a good chance they’re all going to consider coming back,” Pearl said. “There’s a chance they’re all going to come back, but that’s been the case since the beginning.”

“I just feel as we get closer to the deadline and they gather more and more information, I think that chance improves. It would not surprise me, still, to see a couple of them stay in.”

Those four players are Mustapha Heron, Austin Wiley, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Brown was the leading scorer for the Tigers last season, while Heron was arguably their best player and Harper a steady floor general that is the piece that holds everything together. Wiley did not play after he was ruled ineligible as a result of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. If he returns he will be eligible to play the 2018-19 season.

Heron will be the most interesting decision of the four. A former McDonald’s All-American, when he declared for the draft last month, he announced that he intended to sign with an agent. But he has told reporters in the last week that he never actually signed and is still “50-50” on whether or not he will return. He was not invited to the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last week. Wiley was, but he did not make enough of an impression to earn himself a first round guarantee. Brown and Harper are very unlikely to be drafted, but both juniors will get feedback from NBA teams on what they might need to do to play their way into the league.

Auburn is coming off of a year where they shared the SEC regular season title with Tennessee, but they struggled down the stretch of the season after Anfernee McLemore suffered a gruesome ankle injury. As it stands, under the assumption that Heron and Wiley are gone, we currently have the Tigers ranked as a top 15 team in the country in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

With Heron and Wiley back, however, Auburn will have the pieces to make a case as one of college basketball’s five best teams next season.

Forward Lance Thomas transferring from Louisville

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With Anas Mahmoud out of eligibility and Ray Spalding having made the decision to enter the 2018 NBA Draft, new Louisville head coach Chris Mack had some holes to fill in the front court ahead of his first season at the helm. There’s now another departure to account for, as it was announced Tuesday afternoon that 6-foot-8 forward Lance Thomas has decided to transfer.

Thomas, who will have three seasons of eligibility remaining at his next school, appeared in 12 games for the Cardinals last season and averaged 2.2 points and 1.3 rebounds in 4.2 minutes per game.

Losing Thomas may not appear to be a big deal based upon his production as a freshman. But, given the combination of player departures and misses on the recruiting trail this spring it can also be argued that Louisville is not in a position where it can afford any more personnel losses.

Louisville is now down to four scholarship players in the front court, wings V.J. King and Jordan Nwora and forwards Malik Williams and Steven Enoch, with Enoch eligible after sitting out last season after transferring in from UConn.

Williams made 12 starts as a freshman, averaging 3.8 points and 2.4 rebounds in 10.6 minutes per game, with King averaging 8.6 points per game and Nwora 5.7 points per game. Enoch played in 29 games at UConn during the 2016-17 season, averaging 3.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per appearance.

Four-star wing Romeo Weems commits to DePaul

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DePaul landed its first verbal commitment in the Class of 2019 Tuesday afternoon, as four-star small forward Romeo Weems announced that he will be a Blue Demon. Weems, who attends New Haven HS in New Haven, Michigan, picked DePaul over Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Oregon and is considered by most major scouting services to be a Top 50 prospect in the 2019 graduating class.

The 6-foot-6 Weems plays his grassroots basketball for The Family on the Nike EYBL circuit, averaging 15.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this spring. Weems also has experience playing for USA Basketball, as he was part of the Under-16 team that won the FIBA Americas U16 title last year. Weems will also be part of the training camp from which the Under-17 team will be selected next month in preparation for this summer’s FIBA Under-17 World Championships.

DePaul managing to land a commitment from a prospect of Weems’ caliber, a versatile wing who can defend multiple positions while also being productive offensively, could be the shot in the arm that Dave Leitao’s program so desperately needs if they’re to improve their standing within the Big East.

Since making the move from Conference USA in 2005, DePaul has finished above .500 in a season just once (20-14 in 2006-07) with that also being the only time in which the Blue Demons finished above .500 in Big East play (9-7). Since Leitao, who led DePaul to its most recent NCAA tournament in 2005, returned for his second stint at the school the Blue Demons have gone 29-65.

Getting out of Allstate Arena and moving to the new Wintrust Arena ahead of last season was an important move for the DePaul program, but it’s been clear that the rebuild won’t be a “quick fix.” Bringing in a talent of Weems’ caliber should help DePaul moving forward, with the key now being to recruit well enough to ensure that the talented wing has ample help when he arrives on campus next year.

Among the players currently on the roster who will have eligibility remaining in 2019 are guards Devin Gage and Justin Roberts and wing Darious Hall, who will sit out the 2018-19 season after transferring to DePaul from Arkansas. Hall appeared in 35 games for the Razorbacks this past season, averaging 5.1 points and 3.1 rebounds in just under 15 minutes per game.