NY's best? May be Columbia or Hofstra

Columbia is boarding the team bus in New York around 1 p.m. Wednesday for a 7 p.m. tip at Hofstra on Long Island.

Joe Jones isn't taking any chances.

The last time he took the Lions on this short road trip, on Dec. 1, they never made it.

The Lions' bus was caught in a massive traffic jam, leaving them stranded in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95 and unable to make the 7 p.m. tip.

Columbia left campus at 4:45 p.m., in what should have been enough time to get to Hofstra by 5:30 p.m.

The Lions ended up staying in the bus for 3 hours and 15 minutes without ever bouncing a ball.

"Once we weren't moving, I called Tommy (Pecora of Hofstra) and told him that we're in trouble," Jones said of his former assistant coaching colleague under Jay Wright at Hofstra. "He told me the Throgs Neck Bridge was out and that everyone was going toward the Whitestone Bridge. I knew then there was no way we were going to make it."

Meanwhile, Pecora had his team stretching but then pulled them into the locker room to inform them the game would have to be postponed. An announcement was made to the 2,500 fans that the game wouldn't go on -- because of a traffic jam.

Well, since then, all has been clear along the road toward surprisingly successful seasons for both of these recently struggling programs.

Have you checked the standings page recently on our site? Hofstra is atop the Colonial Athletic Association with its 7-0 start and Columbia (yes, Columbia) has the top overall record in the Ivy League at 6-1.

Suddenly, three weeks after the game was supposed to occur, Hofstra and Columbia might be the top two teams in the New York City area.


Columbia's assent to respectability is more dramatic. The Lions won just two games two seasons ago. There was talk that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was going to take over the program, but it never happened. Instead, Columbia went for Jones, a Villanova assistant.

In his first year, Jones' Lions won 10 games. This season, he's already won six, beating NCAA Tournament participant Lehigh on the road and winning at St. Francis (NY) -- the same team that beat St. John's.

OK, we know you're not wowed by some of these wins, but they are very significant for this squad. This is a league where the race for the title is typically decided on Oct. 15, when Penn and Princeton start rolling out the balls. While it's premature to say that Columbia is going to be a factor with those two squads (as well as Yale and Brown) in the Ivy this season, the Lions are creating a bit of a jolt so far.

"We inherited players that were better than people thought," Jones said of Matt Preston (16.3 ppg) and Dragutin Kravic (11.1 ppg).

"Our bench is mostly freshmen but we're much improved over last year."

Jones, the brother of Yale coach James Jones, is energetic and commands loyalty from his flock of players. He got the entire team to stay in New York for the summer, with the players getting internships and working out as a team on campus.
Why is this significant?

"Because in the Ivy League, you can't pay for rooms and meals over the summer," Jones said. "They did a great job in conditioning. We're stronger and we're faster."

And the program is receiving support like never before on campus. New athletic director M. Diane Murphy was quoted in early November as saying that the Columbia facilities are "woefully inadequate." She also said that the "tradition of losing in most sport programs at Columbia frustrates and demoralizes alumni, parents, students, faculty and staff."

She went on to say that "compared to our Ivy League peers, Columbia suffers from significant underfunding and understaffing at all levels of the athletics program."

These statements didn't appear in some idle story. They were actually posted on the school's own athletics site. Murphy, who was the athletic director at the University of Denver for the previous six seasons, was hired in August.

"She's tough, knowledgeable and doesn't take any crap," Jones said. "She's straight up."

Jones said when he arrived the players were so hungry to win that they just wanted to understand how. He said he received "things" the past two years that weren't there before, like new computers and locker room upgrades -- things that generally improved the entire program. The players look good, feel good and now they're playing well.

"We've still got a long way to go," Jones said. Columbia plays N.C. State in the Holiday Classic at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 28. But if they can beat Hofstra first, they'll be kings of New York, at least for a day.

Manhattan has been the team to beat in the city the past two seasons behind star guard Luis Flores, but that title currently belongs to the Pride after they took out St. John's. The Jaspers still might end up having one of the best squads in the area, but Hofstra's rebirth will challenge them not just for city pride but also for recognition beyond if the Pride can get back to the NCAA Tournament.

Hofstra doesn't play Manhattan. The Pride's next "big game" is at Syracuse on Dec. 30. But beating Columbia is first on the agenda for a program in dire need of good news. Hofstra was the one of the top teams in the America East when Wright was the head coach and Speedy Claxton and Norman Richardson were the program's top players.

Pecora has had some bad breaks since. The program went to the much-tougher Colonial Athletic Association and has been riddled with injuries. Pecora has lost two starters late in the season in three straight years. This season, Loren Stokes, who is putting up 19.9 points a game, freshman Antoine Agudio (17 ppg) and Aurimas Kieza (13.4 ppg) lead the Pride.

Pecora said he's thrilled with the way the team is playing so far. But he's realistic enough to know that the Pride still have to win the CAA to get into the Dance. Hofstra won 10 games in the CAA last season, but just 14 overall. He's already surpassed his non-conference win total of a year ago but the league is probably deeper this season, making it perhaps harder to get to 10 wins in the conference.

"You need to get your non-conference numbers for the NIT in this league," Pecora said. "We're still a one-bid league so you have to have a good non-conference record."

But the fact that Columbia and Hofstra are playing a meaningful game in late December is remarkable. Let's just hope there isn't any traffic Wednesday afternoon to derail this game once again.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.