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Maryam Hassan / Staff Photographer

First-year guard Mike Smith rounds out a dynamic trio, including junior guard Nate Hickman and senior forward Luke Petrasek, that averages over 55 percent of team scoring.

In its final contest of the nonconference season, men’s basketball will return home to play Howard before it opens Ivy play.

The Light Blue (5-7) is coming off a staggering 98-73 victory over Maine. After dropping five of its last six contests, the win in Bangor was its first over a Division I opponent since November.

With Howard (3-12) on the horizon, the Lions have an opportunity to gain momentum against a struggling opponent. The Bison have posted just one victory over a Division I school this season and were bested by more than 20 at Harvard, 67-46 on Dec. 30. They rank nationally in the bottom 40 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency and have fallen by double digits in each of their 12 losses.

Though the Light Blue also has a losing record, the team has frequently come close to winning, with three of their recent losses coming down to the final moments. But head coach Jim Engles has used those close losses, and a competitive 78-67 defeat to a highly regarded Miami squad, to propel his team forward. Engles said that the team’s last three games—the Miami game, a three-point loss against Albany, and the Maine win—has been its best stretch of the season.

Key to that run have been performances by the Lions’ three leading scorers: senior forward Luke Petrasek, junior guard Nate Hickman, and first-year guard Mike Smith. The trio averages 42.1 points per game, over 55 percent of the team’s scoring, and has shown out in the last three games by ramping up the team’s penetration and three-point shooting efforts.

Especially in the Maine game, the trio lit up the scoring column from downtown, draining 13 three-pointers on the day—its highest total of the season.

That upswing could threaten a Howard team that allows an opponent three-point field goal percentage, 41.4, that is ranked ninth-highest in the nation. The deficiency may be a function of the Bison’s zone defense, which can prove vulnerable to a barrage of perimeter scoring attempts.

Like Howard, the Light Blue has also employed a zone defense of late, but the strategy has worked largely to Columbia’s benefit. Against much stiffer competition on average over the last three games than it had faced earlier in the season, the Light Blue helped lower its season points allowed average by over 0.7 points.

But the return from injury of the Bison’s James Daniel, last season’s national leading scorer, could be cause for concern among the Lions. The guard averaged 27.1 points per game in his 2015-2016 campaign but will be playing just his second game of this season on Saturday. After being sidelined by an ankle injury suffered in preseason practice, Daniel returned against Florida A&M, but his presence wasn’t enough to tip the scales in the Bison’s favor, as they lost 78-66.

Look for the Light Blue to utilize a matchup zone, as they have done in flashes recently, or even revert to man-to-man defense to keep a more strict watch on Howard’s leading scorer.

Tipoff in Levien Gymnasium is set for 7 p.m. on Saturday. | @CuSpecSports

Columbia Lions Men's Basketball
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