Jim Engles was the obvious choice to replace Kyle Smith as Columbia’s head coach. The 47-year-old Staten Island native has experience in light blue, having spent five years as a Lions assistant in the mid-2000s. And he has experience as a New York metro area head coach, having led NJIT from the midst of a 51-game D-I losing streak when he took over to a pair of 20-win seasons when he left.
But as Smith heads west to San Francisco after six years, he leaves his successor a program at a crossroads. In the short term, the Lions have to replace four seniors who scored more than half the team’s points this season. And in the long term, no Ivy League team has a wider range of reasonable trajectories.
The Near Future
Columbia is coming off its most successful season of the modern era. The Lions went 10-4 in Ivy play for the first time since the 1970s, and they finished with a program-record 25 wins. They closed the year by winning the CIT championship (beating their future coach along the way).
That title was won with four senior starters — Maodo Lo, Grant Mullins, Alex Rosenberg and Isaac Cohen — who will forever have a place in Columbia history. They represented the team’s top three scorers and top shutdown defender, respectively, leaving big holes in their wake. By Returning Possession Minutes, the Lions project to be tied with Yale for last in the Ivy League at 44%.
Good Ivy teams that return less than half their possessions have dropped significantly in the next year:
If they followed the average path of that group, the Lions would fall to around #200-225 nationally next year. That would keep them on the fringe of contention for a top-four finish and a playoff bid: Princeton and Harvard will be much better than that; Yale has its James Jones magic; and at least one of Penn/Cornell/Dartmouth is likely to improve.
#200-225 feels like a solid projection. Columbia may return less than half its possessions, but those possessions were distributed among several players: Kyle Castlin, Nate Hickman and CJ Davis were all key players at one point this season in the backcourt, as were Luke Petrasek, Jeff Coby and Lukas Meisner in the frontcourt. That raises Columbia’s ‘floor’ — it’s hard to see that group becoming a truly bad team.
But it also lowers their ceiling — nobody has proven they can be the high-usage playmaker the Lions will need next year. Castlin might be that guy; he should have won Rookie of the Year in 2015 before suffering an injury-plagued sophomore campaign. But he’s never been much of a distributor. C.J. Davis should get a chance to be the primary ballhandler, and Mike Smith could be an impact freshman.
The bigger concern is on defense. The Lions allowed Ivy opponents to shoot 69% in the restricted area this season, by far the league’s highest, and there isn’t a true rim protector in next year’s projected frontcourt. Columbia overcame that by becoming a turnover machine midway through the season, but top perimeter defenders Lo and Cohen will graduate. Playing solid team defense has to be Engles’ top priority.
Stylistically, Engles adapted to what he had at NJIT, but his best teams shared some of Smith’s signature traits: sharing the ball effectively, avoiding mid-range jumpers, and taking lots of three-pointers. That’s a good sign for next year, because the Lions are still built for that style: There isn’t a true back-to-the-basket scorer in the rotation, nor a do-it-all guard to run a breakneck offense, but four or five players will be three-point threats at all times. Engles won’t be as dogmatic about pace or shot selection, but the overall shape of Columbia’s offense shouldn’t change dramatically.
The Long Run
Harvard, Yale and Princeton have been the class of today’s Ivy League, each placing in the top half of the standings for seven straight seasons. Penn has bottomed out recently, but history, facilities, and institutional support will ensure the Quakers will bounce back eventually. In the long run, those four schools should represent the top tier of the Ivy League.
That’s not to say teams like Cornell, Dartmouth and Brown can’t succeed; after all, the former reached a Sweet Sixteen this decade. But none of those three squads has cracked finished higher than fourth since then. They’re improving in absolute terms, and they’ll jump up when everything breaks right (possibly later in the Evan Boudreaux-Matt Morgan era). But they’ll find it very hard to sustain success — just look at Cornell’s post-2010 struggles.
Columbia looks like the one team with a path to joining the top tier, and regularly representing the top of the alphabet in future Ivy League Tournaments. The Lions already took one leap under Smith — they were a top-200 team for the last five seasons after never reaching that level in the prior decade — and this season’s team energized the Columbia community.
Second-year athletic director Peter Pilling has invested aggressively in marquee sports, luring legendary Penn football coach Al Bagnoli out of retirement and ponying up to give Smith’s seniors home games in the CIT. He made two widely praised basketball hires last week in Engles and Megan Griffith, a Lions alumna and assistant for Princeton’s women’s team. Columbia might not have much history, but it has an enviable location: Local teams have struggled to recruit the NYC market, but Engles will have a fresh start, and the Big Apple has been a big draw for international players like Lo and Meisner.
In five of the last six seasons, at least two Ivy teams have ranked in KenPom’s top 100. (In the sixth, 2014, Harvard finished 32nd, with four other teams between 101 and 160.) That’s now the standard to be a legitimate title contender — and it’s a standard that Columbia still hasn’t reached, not even at this year’s peak. The Ivy League Tournament will change that dynamic slightly, but the odds will still be steeply against the Lions if they don’t keep improving over time.
That’s why the next few years represent such a crossroads for Columbia basketball. Due to good fortune and their own success, the team has more institutional support and community interest than it’s had in a long time. But those won’t last forever. If Engles can build on his predecessor’s work — perhaps by maintaining Smith’s progressive coaching principles while taking advantage of the rising Ivy tide to recruit higher-rated prospects — the Lions can regularly contend for playoff spots and even championships. But if he flounders, they might not get a second chance to make that leap.