Columbia Lions

NCAA Division: Division I

Conference: Ivy League

Past Conferences: Ivy and Ind

City: Morningside Heights, Manhattan 

Stadium: Levien Gymnasium

NCAA Tournaments:1948, 1951, 1968



         National Championships: 0

       Conference Titles: 0


Team History

Columbia University was originally founded as King’s College in 1754. On record, it is the oldest institution of higher learning in New York and the fifth oldest institution in the nation. The Columbia Lions men’s basketball team would be established centuries later, as it began as a varsity intercollegiate program in the 1900-01 season.

The Columbia University Men’s Basketball program was led by head coach Harry Fisher, but the teams worked to establish themselves over several decades. All things considered, Columbia’s performance as a member of the Ivy League and in the postseason, in general, does not appear to the program as particularly successful, since many other Ivy League schools have stronger resumes. Still, the program was Pre-tournament Premo-Porretta champions during the 1904 and 1905 seasons.

Regardless of the struggles in recent years, the men’s basketball team received some honors throughout its history. Revisiting the history of colligate basketball, Helms Athletic Foundation was a sports organization that operated from 1936 to 1961. 

Before the inception of the NCAA Tournament in 1939, the Lions were named Pre-tournament Helms champions in 1904, 1905, and 1910. Several changes and modifications have been made to the NCAA Tournament since it was first held in 1939. It had a different structure in its early years than it does today, as fewer institutions had athletic departments.

Since its inception, the school’s men’s basketball program has had several coaching changes as it sought stability. Head coach Gordon Ridings led the team to a 20-3 regular season record in 1948, following a successful debut season in 1947 (Regular-season champions). As there was less competition that year, the odds were better.

Always in the School Records

This season will always be in the school’s record books, but the talent compared to other teams was a key distinction. The Lions lost to the Kentucky Wildcats in the Regional semifinals (first round), and suffered the same fate in the third-place game against the Michigan Wolverines, as their talent was miles behind.

Despite all the internal and external factors, this would be the best outcome for the school. Columbia finished in the “Elite 8” as they would never achieve this feat again. The team’s second appearance in a major tournament was not as successful as their previous one. Unfortunately, they lost in the opening round against the Illinois Fighting Illini in 1951; resulting in a “Sweet 16” finish under head coach Lou Rossini.

The Lions experienced a post-season drought for over a decade and a half until the 1968 season, with head coach Jack Rohan leading the program. Based on the Columbia team stats, the Lions’ run in the dance was their most successful to date, since they played cohesive basketball.

In the opening round of the tournament, the squad would cruise past the La Salle Explorers. Unfortunately, the team lost in the second round of the tournament against the Eastern Michigan Eagles in a close, one-possession game. However, they ended their run on a high note by dominating the Saint Bonaventure Bonnies in the third-place game; they performed well on both sides of the court as they won by a 20-point margin, a “Sweet 16” result. Columbia has tried to make it again ever since but has failed to keep up with the top teams in the Ivy League.

Even though Columbia has failed to make it to March Madness, the program made its opportunity count in the CIT. The Lions lost in the quarterfinals in 2014 to their conference rival the Yale Bulldogs, with head coach Kyle Smith calling the shots.

Striving to make the best of the situation, the Lions would receive an invitation to compete in the CIT once again in 2016. During their run, the team was named CIT champions as they defeated UC Irvine Anteaters in the Championship game.

Head coach Jim Engles is currently coaching his fifth season with the program. In the preseason, Columbia had the worst NCAAB odds to win the Ivy League conference. The team’s NCAA Tournament drought will likely continue in the foreseeable future.

All-Time Records

  • Points Scored
    • Buck Jenkins 1,767
    • Jim McMillian 1,758
    • Maodo Lo 1,756


  • Rebounds
    • Jack Molinas 1,051
    • Frank Thomas 1,020
    • Jim McMillian 743


  • Assists
    • Mike Smith 393
    • Brian Barbour 346
    • Tony Chiles 323


  • Steals 
    • Gary Raimondo 209
    • Maodo Lo 181
    • Sean Couch 177




What Is the Worst Season in Program History?

The program has had numerous seasons where the teams reach unfathomable lows. There are a few seasons that get honorable mentions, but the 2002-2003 season was arguably their worst year. The team would register a record of 2-25 for the season or just a .074 win percentage.


Who Is the Winningest Coach in Program History?

Head coach Jack Rohan has the most wins in the program’s history, with a record of 197-248. However, the winningest coach honors have to go to Lou Rossini, Harry Fisher, or Kyle Smith, as all three coaches had higher win percentages. Smith was the latest coach to bring home the CIT Championship, as the school has a 6-1 record in that specific tournament. 


Who Is the Greatest Player in Program History?

There are a few honorable mentions that played at the university, such as Craig “Speedy” Claxton and Noruwa Agho. Jim McMillian is considered by many to be one of the greatest players in the Columbia University men’s basketball history. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers as the 13th pick in the 1970 NBA Draft and went on to have a successful career in the NBA.

He averaged 13.8 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per game. In the 1972 season, he was a key member of the Lakers team that won the championship. After that, he would go to play overseas in Italy. 


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