Though the men’s basketball team (18-11, 7-5 Ivy) is in the midst of one of its best seasons in decades, some of its conference losses have demonstrated how success in nonconference play may not translate to success in conference play.
Over the entire season, Columbia’s scoring defense is second only to Harvard, at 63.4 points allowed per game. But restrict the scope to only Ivy play, and the Light Blue’s defense drops to fifth. In fact, Columbia ranked in the top 70 nationally in defensive efficiency through nonconference play, but now ranks 112th, according to Pomeroy ratings.
One reason for this difference may be where the Columbia defense’s strength lies. While head coach Kyle Smith cited perimeter as a strength—Light Blue opponents only take 26.5 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, the 14th-lowest mark in the country, according to Hoop-Math—the Lions’ Ivy foes, aside from Princeton and Cornell, don’t rely on three-point shooting very much. In Ivy play, the emphasis has been more on interior defense, which has presented more of a challenge for Columbia.
“This league, going against better inside players is what we’ve run into. They’re just better post players,” Smith said.
He specifically pointed toward Yale forward Justin Sears, Penn forward Fran Dougherty, and Brown forward Cedric Kuakumensah as comparing favorably to the posts boasted even by NCAA Tournament-caliber teams like Michigan State and St. John’s.
Earlier this season, Columbia held Princeton—the only team in the country to attempt half its field goals from beyond the arc, per Hoop-Math—to 18 points fewer than its season average, but allowed Penn, which boasts a strong post game behind two of the conference’s best forwards, to score at its season average the following night.
And despite its impressive perimeter defense throughout the season, Columbia’s opponents, according to Smith, have been able to make more of their threes against Columbia than they usually do. While the Lions have allowed the second-least number of three-point attempts, they rank last among the Ancient Eight in opponents’ three-point field goal percentage. Combined with a young frontcourt that has had difficulty contending with the plethora of talented big men across the conference, the Lions have ended up with conference losses even when putting together good offensive performances.
Additionally, as the season has worn on, the team’s defensive efforts have been hindered by injury. Sophomore guard Grant Mullins—“a gritty defender” according to Smith—was injured on Feb. 7 and has been out of the lineup since Feb. 15. Mullins was a key player in keeping opponents from getting open looks from long range. Most of Columbia’s frontcourt players have also been injured at some point this season.
Nevertheless, the team this season has clinched a .500 record for the first time since 2009. With the exception of Saturday’s blowout loss in Boston, despite a defensive slowdown, the Lions have been able to solve tough defenses like Brown, Harvard, and Yale frequently enough to keep games within striking distance—a big reason why, with two more wins against Penn and Princeton this weekend, the Lions will be able to get to 20 wins in a single season for the first time since 1970.