It’s easy to be enamored by the fire power of Columbia’s high-octane offense. But what you don’t see, lost in the frenetic movement and barrage of three-pointers, is all the dirty work done by the Lions’ cleanup man Isaac Cohen.
Cohen’s game-by-game stat-lines won’t “wow” anyone, but it’s the intangibles that don’t show up on the stat-sheet — the screens he sets to free up the Lions’ shooters Maodo Lo and Steve Frankoski; his drive-and-kick ability; the defense he plays against opponents’ best perimeter players and his basketball-IQ — that are the things that make Cohen the quintessential glue-guy every team needs and arguably the Lions’ most important player.
“I feel like I’m the guy out there that’s trying to put everything together,” Cohen said of his role on the 7-5 Lions. “I usually guard the team’s best perimeter player and try to do a good job defensively on him. I try to take a load off the ball-handling for Maodo when guys start pressuring him, try to get Chris (McComber) and Steve and the other shooters some good shots. I just try to blend.”
A 6’4” 220-pound pinball of a guard, Cohen leads Columbia with 4.8 assists per game and ranks second on the team with averages of 6.2 rebounds and 31.5 minutes. The junior nonchalantly shrugs off the burden placed on his shoulders, but his invaluable contributions are not lost on his teammates or his coach.
“He’s perfect to play with, you can’t wish to play with anyone else other than Isaac Cohen,” said Lo, the Lions’ leading scorer at 18.2 points per game.
“He is the jack of all trades. He’s actually one of the best passers and playmakers I’ve ever coached,” Columbia head coach Kyle Smith said. “He’s unselfish to a fault, but he makes so many plays. He’s our best defender, he’s our best rebounder, and he’s all about ‘team,’ again almost to a fault (laughs)… He’s a basketball-savant in a lot of ways; he doesn’t think through things, he just has a really intuitive sense of how to play the game and what to do offensively and defensively.”
The thing neither Smith nor Cohen mention is his scoring, probably because Cohen only takes a shot when it’s absolutely necessary. Through 10 games he has attempted only 27 shots, by far the lowest of any starter, but surprisingly leads the Lions with 56 percent shooting from the field. Smith said he’d like to see Cohen make more use of his scoring ability.
“I do!” Smith said emphatically when asked if he wants Cohen to look to score more. “Like I said, he’s unselfish to a fault. He’s really good in the post, we need to get more catches for him down there. We want to get him going and get him more assertive that way.”
Cohen, on the other hand, sees scoring as his least important contribution to the team.
“I just go out and play, if I need to take a shot I’m not gonna not shoot. But I’ve just kind of been given the liberty to make decisions, the coaches trust me to do what I think is best,” he said. “I just go out and play and whatever happens, happens.”
Cohen sure went out and played in a Dec. 28 throw down against visiting Colgate, dishing out 10 assists, ripping down eight rebounds, scoring five points and swatting three shots while serving as the engine revving in overdrive that powered the Lions to a 69-64 win.
In high school Cohen actually held his own as a scorer, averaging 14 points as a senior at Orlando Christian Prep, but averaged just four points per game during his first two years at Columbia. He said he stopped focusing on scoring as a freshman once he realized the offensive talent that Lions already had, and admitted that not taking on a scoring load makes it that much more important for him to be a facilitator and contribute in other areas.
“Once I got here, just seeing the type of team we have, we have a lot of play-finishers. Steve is a catch-and-shoot guy, Chris is a catch-and-shoot guy, Jeff (Coby) is a guy who catches it and scores. Play-finishers need guys to create shots for them and I found out pretty early in my career that that was something I was able to do. It was something that was able to give me minutes as a freshman and it just carried over [throughout my career],” he said. “Being a guy that isn’t scoring 10 or 12 points a game, I have to be able to be really good at all the little things: defending, rebounding and taking care of the ball, which are the three things our program preaches more than anything else.”
But the truth is, Cohen is the embodiment of the philosophy shared by the entire Lions roster, which is not only to fill your role, but to embrace it. That cohesion amongst the players is what has Columbia playing so well to start the season.
“I think that’s just a testament to how well [Coach Smith] recruits; he picks guys that really want to be here and have great work ethic,” Cohen said. “I think we have 15 guys that are all ‘team’ and not ‘me’ guys, guys that are worried about getting their own [accolades]. We all live together, we hang out together and we enjoy each other’s company. When you love each other like that, it’s easy to play for each other.”
Cohen said he believes the Lions are good enough to win the Ivy League and make it to the NCAA Tournament before his career is over. He’s not interested in a personal legacy being known as Columbia’s cleanup man; instead his career goal is all about the team. “At this point I want them to say that I was a part of two Ivy League-title teams,” he said when asked what he hopes people will say about him at the end of his career. “I think that’s pinnacle of success for this team.”
Whatever the case, Cohen will forever be known as a player whose value was beyond how many points he scored. He will be known as a leader, one who put the team’s needs above his own from the moment he first stepped on the court at Levien Gymnasium.
“He’s grown as a leader through his investment in trying to make the team as good as it can be,” Smith said. “It’s why I enjoy coaching college basketball: you get to see this age group from 18 to 22 and see guys like him really grow and mature. He’ll be just a phenomenal asset to whoever hires him in whatever he decides to do with his life. He’s that special.”