Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the Princeton men’s basketball team played in the College Insider.com Tournament, or CIT. Princeton played in the College Basketball Invitational, or CBI. This version has been corrected.
NEW YORK — The building was packed and rocking with noise. It was exactly what you would expect from a late-March postseason basketball game.
“Best entertainment buy you can find in New York,” Columbia Coach Kyle Smith would say later. “Really good basketball and it costs almost nothing.”
On Wednesday night, for $10 a ticket — if you could find one — you could walk into Levien Gym, which is tucked between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue on the Columbia campus, and watch a wonderful basketball game between rivals who were meeting for the 226th time.
It was the quarterfinals of the College Basketball Invitational. Not the NCAA tournament, where tickets for Friday’s East Region semifinals at Madison Square Garden were being sold on the secondary market for a minimum of $500 a pop. It was not even the National Invitation Tournament. It was a 32-team pay-to-play tournament that exists for teams such as Yale and Columbia, lower-echelon programs that had good seasons but weren’t quite good enough — or telegenic enough in the case of the NIT — to make the two traditional postseason tournaments.
“Actually, it’s an amazing thing,” said Yale junior Javier Duren, who scored 33 points and made one critical play after another down the stretch. “If you think about it, there aren’t a lot of college teams still playing and we’re one of them. It was weird coming back from spring break and thinking, ‘Hey, I have to go to practice, We’ve got a game to play.’ He smiled. “That’s a lot more fun than starting offseason workouts.”
Both teams had won two tournament games to get to this stage. Columbia was 21-12, the first time since 1969-70 the school had won 20 games in a season. In fact, this was the first time since 1967-68 that Columbia had played in any postseason tournament.
How long ago was 1968? It isn’t just that the players have no memory of that team, which won the Ivy League title and reached the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 before losing in overtime to Davidson. It’s that Smith, their coach, also doesn’t remember it.
“I was born in 1969,” he said with a smile. “My first memories of basketball are Kyle Macy in 1978 [at Kentucky] with that free throw shooting routine of his.”
The only link to the ’68 team who is still part of the program is Tim Sherwin, the team’s alumni liaison. He has been around Columbia for 50 years.
“Sometimes on the bus trips he’ll start telling us about ’68,” sophomore guard Isaac Cohen said, grinning. “I couldn’t really tell you much about that team, but he lets us know how good they were.”
They were, in fact, very good. Jim McMillian was the star. He would go on to be the 13th pick in the 1970 NBA draft and play nine seasons in the NBA, averaging 13.8 points per game. When Elgin Baylor retired in 1971, McMillian took his spot at small forward and was part of the Los Angeles Lakers team that won a record 33 straight games en route to the NBA title.
But the Ivy League title Columbia won in 1968 might have been a bigger deal. After all, the Lakers have won 10 NBA titles since 1972. Columbia has won nothing. McMillian had lots of help on that team: Seven-foot center Dave Newmark and shooting guard Heyward Dotson were both drafted. Billy Ames was the point guard, and Roger Walaszek played power forward at 6 feet 3 and was the team’s captain.
For the record, I didn’t have to look any of those names up. Columbia was the first college basketball team I truly loved. I went to games at old University Gym — where most of the 1,600 seats had obstructed views — and listened intently to road games on WKCR, the student radio station.
I vividly remember the Davidson game, which was played in College Park. Lefty Driesell was coaching the Wildcats, and with the score tied at 55 and one second left, Columbia’s Bruce Metz was fouled. Before he could go to the line to shoot one-and-one, Lefty called back-to-back timeouts. Metz missed, Davidson won in overtime but then lost the East Region final to North Carolina, 70-66. That’s how good Columbia was. It finished seventh in the final AP poll that season.
That’s why being in Levien Gym on Wednesday night was so much fun. It was a trip down memory lane but also a great basketball atmosphere. The attendance was 2,394, and the place was loud all night as the momentum shifted throughout the 40 minutes. Columbia shot 15 for 28 from outside the three-point line — and lost.
Yale is now in the Final Four — of the CIT — and no one on either team was complaining about the fact that most of the basketball world couldn’t care less about it.
“It was great to be in postseason, to see the crowd we had, to win the games we won,” said Maodo Lo, who scored 22 points and kept hitting three-pointers down the stretch to keep Columbia in the game. “Playing in these games will motivate us for next season because we absolutely want to do it again.”
Harvard has set a very high bar in the Ivy League in recent years, especially with first- round NCAA tournament wins over a No. 3 seed (New Mexico) and a No. 5 seed (Cincinnati) the last two seasons. But five Ivy League teams played in the postseason this March and none of the other four (Princeton was in the CBI and Brown was in the CIT) lose three seniors the way Harvard does.
“Things have changed the last few years,” Smith said. “I honestly wasn’t sure how good this job was when I came here [after being an assistant at Saint Mary’s] because of recruiting. But we can recruit here because it’s the Ivy League. We’re getting good players — the whole league is getting good players.”
How important was this season, the 20 wins, the three postseason games, the packed gym Wednesday?
Smith smiled. “When I was being interviewed for the job, someone asked me what I knew about the ’68 team. My first thought was, ‘Why does that matter?’ I think I thought that because I flunked the question completely. I knew nothing. Then it occurred to me that there’s good reason to talk about that team. They set a very high bar back then.
“We have amazing alumni. You should have seen the e-mails and texts I got after the Eastern Michigan game [in the second round of the CIT]. They’re like longtime scorned lovers. They want to believe again.”
Columbia didn’t win the game Wednesday, but it won by playing the game. There’s reason to believe again just off-Broadway in Manhattan.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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