Light Blue returns home, looks to overcome slump

If the Lions were hoping to get a break after a five-game road trip, they will have to wait at least another week.

In their first two home games since topping Cornell on Jan. 15, this weekend Columbia plays host to two of the Ivy League’s elite in Princeton and Penn. The Tigers (17-4, 5-0 Ivy) lead the conference after beating Harvard over the weekend and then downing the Quakers 62-59 in overtime in a midweek matchup.

Columbia enters the game on a two-game skid after getting swept last weekend at Brown and Yale. The Light Blue (12-8, 3-3 Ivy) has dropped three of its last four after starting conference play 2-0 and will have to focus its attentions on the defensive end of the court if it hopes to turn its fortunes around.

The Lions surrendered 55 second-half points against the Bears after heading into the intermission with a 38-32 advantage. Brown’s freshman point guard Sean McGonagill scored 39 points, 24 of which came in the second-half barrage that ultimately undid the Light Blue. Brown shot a staggering 74.1 percent from the field during that stretch.

Head coach Kyle Smith labeled that defensive performance an anomaly, but his team faces two sets of very talented guards this weekend for which they will need to account.

Up first will be Princeton’s backcourt of Douglas Davis and Dan Mavraides. Davis and Mavraides score 13.2 and 13.3 points a game, respectively, in a Tigers offense that features four different threats. Beyond Davis and Mavraides, Princeton has a pair of options in the post in sophomore Ian Hummer and senior sixth man Kareem Maddox.

“Usually we say, ‘Well we’ll try to wipe out the three or cover down the post.’ ... In order to win, we gotta do both—we gotta be able to help them on the post, recover and guard the three,” Smith said. “It’s as simple as that. That’s what I tell the team, it’s like, they’re good, but if we want to win, we’re going to have to do both.”

Hummer is the team’s leading scorer with 13.8 points per game to go with 6.6 boards. Maddox leads the team in rebounds with 7.3 per game to go with 12.9 points. Despite coming on as a substitute, Maddox averages nearly 31 minutes a contest.

Princeton’s balanced quartet of scorers means Smith’s defense will not be able to key in on a single area of the Tigers’ offense. Since the Tigers have the ability to score inside and out, the Lions will have to find a way to stop both approaches.

In addition, the pace of the Tigers’ play may also pose problems for a young Lions team. A squad historically known for its methodical style, Friday night’s opponent has the second best defensive team in the conference in both points allowed (64.3) and defensive field goal percentage (42.3 percent). When Princeton does take shots, it is particularly effective, leading the league in field goal percentage (46.7 percent). Against a team that does not give up points easily, the Lions cannot afford costly turnovers or mental lapses on either end of the floor.

The next night, Columbia will welcome Penn (9-10, 3-2 Ivy) to Levien Gymnasium for its Alumni Night. The greats of years past will be treated to a matchup of two of the Ivy League’s current stars in the Lions’ Noruwa Agho and the Quakers’ Zack Rosen. Rosen, along with Harvard’s Jeremy Lin, was one of only two non-Cornell players to be named first team all-Ivy last season, and Agho was named to the preseason first team all-Ivy before the 2010-2011 campaign.

Rosen leads a Penn squad that had won four straight games before dropping two in a row in overtime. The Quakers dropped an 83-82 nail-biter in double overtime to Harvard last Saturday before losing to Princeton on Tuesday.

While Rosen is the team’s leading scorer with 14.6 points per game, the Quakers—like Princeton—are not a one-dimensional squad. Jack Eggleston, a lanky 6-foot-8, 215-pound senior forward, is just behind Rosen with 14.0 points per game. Guards Tyler Bernardini and Miles Cartwright add 12.6 and 11.9 per game, respectively. Rosen, Bernardini, and Eggleston all can stretch the floor and shoot from the outside, averaging over 36 percent from beyond the arc. Including Cartwright, all four can be considered as outside threats—despite being listed as a forward, Eggleston is not a prototypical post player.

As a result, Smith will need to find a reliable on-ball defender on the perimeter, something that has for the most part eluded him this season. The Lions’ three starting guards—Agho, freshman sharpshooter Steve Frankoski, and sophomore point guard Brian Barbour—have had to shoulder the bulk of the scoring load this year. Smith has looked to his bench for relief of defense, turning to lanky freshman Meiko Lyles and athletic classmate Van Green at various points this year.

This past Sunday, though, Smith turned to little-used sophomore Dean Kowalski, who helped spark a second-half run that nearly turned a 16-point halftime deficit into a big road win. Asked if Kowalski would be “his guy” this weekend, Smith hinted at an increased role for the relentless 5-foot-10-inch guard, but stopped short of giving him the nod as the Lions’ go-to defender.
“I wouldn’t anticipate Dean being a big-minute guy. I just know if we need a spark or if guys are murdering us, I’m going to him,” Smith said. “We’ll at least give that guy a look. Lord knows I tried everything.”

Another answer could come at the other end of the floor for the Light Blue in the form of a low-post offensive threat. Both senior Asenso Ampim and sophomore Mark Cisco seem eager to fit the bill. Last weekend Ampim averaged 17.5 points between the two contests, while Cisco scored 17 against Yale while guarding the league’s premier big man in Greg Mangano. If either can step up consistently, Agho and Barbour may have a little more energy for defense, which would solve Smith’s conundrum altogether.

Princeton will be a tough test for a Columbia team that is desperate to regain the midseason swagger that saw the Lions win ten games during a 12-game stretch from Nov. 23 to Jan. 22. The Light Blue has won seven of its last eight in the friendly confines of Levien, and Smith hopes a little home cooking may be just what his squad needs to get back on track.

“When we’re our best, we’re balanced, and we’re starting to get there,” he said.

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