Men’s basketball ended its first stretch of nonconference play at 3-4. Here are some thoughts, opinions, and observations from Spectator’s basketball beat writers, the “Step Back” three.
What have you learned about new head coach Jim Engles during his first seven games?
Austin Horn: When Engles took over the program, nearly every variable was (and still largely is) unknown. The coaching staff is almost entirely new, and the team lost over 60 percent of its scoring (and four starters) from last season. As someone who followed the team last year, this season has been so disorienting—everything is new. That said, Engles has made the transition, while certainly not seamlessly, more smoothly than I’d have guessed.
Christopher Lopez: Engles has demonstrated his ability to get almost every player on the roster a chance to play. So far, we’ve seen most of the Light Blue’s bench play in nearly every contest, and it seems as if Engles will continue to establish a clear rotation. He’s really relied on first-year Mike Smith to lead his fast-paced offense, and the trust that he put in Smith was evident against Seton Hall, as Smith shined despite a lackluster performance from the team in Newark.
Jered Everson: Engles loves basketball. He’s super passionate about the sport and his guys, even if it doesn’t quite manifest itself in a lot of vocality during games (he tends to be on the quieter side). With a totally new coaching staff, many young players stepping into unfamiliar roles, and a big change in offensive philosophy, a lot of things are still clearly works in progress. But from what I’ve seen so far, including three nonconference wins, steady improvements in offensive and defensive efficiency, and flashes of stellar play from youngsters Mike Smith and Jake Killingsworth, I think the program is safe in Engles’ hands.
Which player has most surprised you over the opening stretch?
Jered: Engles put it best: “I love Nate.” And so do I. Nate Hickman has to be the biggest (pleasant) surprise over the opening stretch. Having to step in and fill Maodo Lo’s shoes would be a tall task for anyone, but Hickman has excelled thus far. He leads the team in scoring at 17.3 PPG and has been asked to step up in pretty much every critical moment, including a game-winning triple over Colgate. The guy is a tremendous shooter with great touch but can also finish through contact at the rim, making him one of the most dangerous wings in the Ivy League.
Austin: For me, it has to be sophomore guard Quinton Adlesh. When he first came in against Stony Brook I thought, “Oh, the coach wants to send a message to his starters.” (The guy did not see any significant minutes in Ivy play last season.) But he ended up hitting three crucial three-pointers in 23 minutes of action, and with probably the longest wingspan—one has to wonder if he has a future with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks—of any Light Blue guard, he’s averaging the most steals per 40 minutes of anyone on the team. So yeah, he’s surprised me.
Ben Goldsmith / Staff Photographer
Chris: Smith has showed why he was one of the most highly touted recruits to choose Columbia. Nonetheless, I didn’t expect him to show quite as much poise as he has in his first few contests. Smith dominated against Seton Hall, as he consistently found open lanes to the basket en route to a career-high 23 points. If Smith can keep up his great pace, he will be a tremendous four-year starter for the Lions.
What does the team need to address heading into its next nonconference battle on Dec. 9 (at Navy)?
Austin: It’s no secret that the Light Blue’s defense is lacking. It ranks 327th nationally in points allowed per game, has given up more than 80 points in every game but one, and dropped its most recent contest, a 95-71 rout to Seton Hall. The problem is clear, it’s just a matter of finding a solution—a trickier proposition. Speaking with Engles, a man-to-man proponent, it seems like the Lions are now open to the possibility of trying out different defenses—we’ve seen 2-3, 3-2, and a full-court press. The latter ended up being, perhaps, the best stretch of defense this season. Look out for it if we see some more Levien barn burners.
Chris: I think defensive consistency will help the Lions steadily improve. Per kenpom.com, Navy’s offense runs at the 330th highest tempo. Since a majority of the players have more familiarity with a slower offense, reminiscent of that implemented by former head coach Kyle Smith, a slow offense may be just what the Lions need to get into a defensive rhythm. Should the Light Blue keep the game in the 50s or 60s, I think that the outcome will go the Lions’ way. Their 73-66 triumph over Stony Brook saw them get important stops when needed, so one can hope they can replicate that form against the 3-6 Midshipmen.
Jered: I agree with Chris and Austin that the defense is troublesome. But instead I’m going to focus on the importance of rebounding. In its last outing, Columbia was outrebounded 37-23 by Seton Hall, while also giving up 12 offensive boards. For a team that’s working to implement a run-and-gun offense, rebounding is critical because it allows players to get out quickly in transition off opponent misses. Improving efforts to clean up the glass will also limit second-chance points on the defensive end, which have really hurt the Light Blue in its last few contests. Simply put: Better rebounding will help Columbia in all facets of the game.
At what percent capacity is the offense running? Why?
Chris: 65 percent. I think that the Lions have made steady improvements, adjusting to Engles' new offensive system, but the team hasn’t fully executed at a level that it’s capable of. Hickman and Petrasek lead the team in scoring with 17.3 and 16.3 points per contest, respectively. But, Hickman has shown he has the capability to take over a game with stretches of dominance reminiscent of a certain Maodo Lo, CC ’16, and his trademark jumper. Take Hickman’s last home game against Hofstra, where he single-handedly brought the Light Blue back into the game, scoring 13 consecutive Lion points in a flurry. Should the pace be up to Engles’ standards, we should see a more dynamic offense.
Austin: 86 percent. That mark is both the highest points scored for the Lions this season (in an 88-86 loss to Hofstra) and a very ad hoc approximation of where this offense is developmentally. We all knew from the outset that Engles wanted to run a more up-tempo offense, but in my mind it’s mostly “up-tempo” relative to where the Lions were in years past. They now take about 17.4 seconds per possession, which isn’t particularly fast, but it is fast in comparison to two years ago where possessions played out at over an average of 20.9 seconds.
Jered: I’ll go with 70 percent. At times, when the ball moves and wings attack the lane, the offense looks really nice. Other times, when guys settle for contested jumpers and the ball seemingly gets stuck in molasses, the offense looks woefully disorganized. Columbia needs better consistency, especially down the stretch. This has been one of Engles’ biggest focal points in practice over the last couple of weeks, and while there’s been some noticeable improvement (i.e., a hard-fought home win over Colgate), there’s still plenty of room for growth. Senior forward Luke Petrasek, who’s averaging close to a double-double, has been a steadying force for the Lions down low and will need to continue to lead on the offensive end as the season progresses.
What changes do you hope to see as nonconference play resumes?
Chris: The Lions need to find a way to defend the three. In the Seton Hall game and the Hofstra game, the Light Blue was torched by three-point shooting, and it made it really hard for them to stay in the game. According to kenpom.com, Columbia is allowing its opponents to shoot 36.5 percent from beyond the arc, good for 286th in the nation. The cliché in basketball is that a good defense leads to a good offense, but this year’s version of Columbia men’s basketball should really aim to use the nonconference play as preparation for the potent offenses of the Ancient Eight. With games coming up against Miami and Albany, both of which have been perennial NCAA Tournament contenders, Columbia has a great opportunity to prove its worth against difficult opponents.
Austin: I’m not saying the broth is spoiled, but Engles has too many cooks at the point guard position. It’s not intrinsically a problem, per se, to have a glut of talent at one position, but between sophomore CJ Davis, Adlesh, Smith, and senior Kendall Jackson, the tallest is 6-foot-2 and they each get two inches shorter as you go—you can do the math. They’re all talented players, but it can be a matchup nightmare to have more than one of those natural point guards out on defense at the same time. Most shooting guards (and nearly all small forwards) are significantly taller and can take advantage of short defenders on and off the ball.
That’s why I’d like to see more consistent playing time on the wing from first-year starting guard Jake Killingsworth, sophomore guard Rodney Hunter, and even sophomore guard Peter Barba—all of whom are 6-foot-5. That could be the key to fixing the most recent defensive woes.
Jered: A greater focus on rebounding, more offensive consistency, and especially toughness is needed. Columbia has allowed sizable leads to slip late in a few games, which is a result of inexperience, guys not knowing how to close games out, and a lack of Jay Bilas toughness. Engles has used some early nonconference losses to teach his guys the intangibles necessary to win at the Division I level. Now that the youngsters have some games under their belt, going forward, I’ll expect to see more poise, ball control, and grit in critical moments.