Jim Engles clearly didn’t want to leave NJIT after a remarkable eight-year run in Newark that began with a 1-30 season and ended with back-to-back 20-win campaigns as well as a conference (Atlantic Sun) to finally call home.
But of the other 350 schools in the nation, there might not be a better fit than Columbia, at least on paper. Engles is a New York City native, has experience as an assistant in the Ivy League (at Columbia), understands the off-the-court demands, and has a calm temperament that should play well with the kids he’s coaching.
Although Columbia won the CIT last season, finishing 25-10 overall and 10-4 in the Ivy League, the expectations are relatively low for now. The Lions graduated four seniors who all contributed heavily, including Maodo Lo, who might have been an Ivy League Player of the Year in many other seasons. Columbia also lost junior Kyle Castlin to a toe injury, meaning—other than senior Luke Petrasek and sophomore Lukas Meisner—it’s basically a new team.
Which may be just fine with Engles, who himself may not know what kind of style he wants to employ long-term on the Upper West Side. His NJIT teams played relatively quickly, ranking in the top 100 in adjusted tempo three of the last four seasons, and checking in at 105 last season. That would be in stark contrast to what Kyle Smith did, but Engles was also limited by the undersized and mainly neglected (at least in high school) players he recruited at NJIT, where many of them turned into tremendous college players.
But at Columbia in the rising Ivy League, he can afford to be a little more ambitious in recruiting and maybe a bit slower with his offense. Through three games (not exactly a healthy sample), the Lions are a fairly plodding 229th in tempo.
Monday night, Quinnipiac caused some problems by playing fast, but eventually Columbia shot the ball too well for them and won somewhat comfortably 86-78 to move to 2-1 on the season, all on the road, with the loss coming to defending Atlantic-10 champion Saint Joseph’s in Philadelphia.
“The transition’s been slow, but about what I expected,” Engles said. “The fact that we won two road games to start the year is definitely a positive for us. A lot of the things we’ve seen in the first three games will help us, we’ve played three solid teams that are all athletic. We have a big stretch coming at home and we have to tighten a lot of things up.”
Petrasek has been solid, stretching defenses at 6’10”, and doing an admirable job on the boards, although the Lions gave up 22 offensive rebounds to Quinnipiac (39.3%). The two biggest surprises, at least to outside observers have come in the backcourt. Nate Hickman saw limited action in his first two seasons at Columbia, but has taken advantage of the voids left by graduation and injuries to score 50 points in the Lions’ first three games, including a career-high 23 points Monday on 7-13 shooting. Hickman did show flashes last season, but will have to be more consistent playing the majority of minutes this season.
“A lot of the guys took it a bit personally over the summer, knowing that everyone is going to be expecting us to have a huge drop-off this year, especially with a new coach, so we’re just trying to adjust to that as quickly as possible and keep preparing every day for the Ivy League season,” Hickman said.
Meanwhile, freshman point guard Mike Smith committed to Columbia last spring just 10 days before Kyle Smith resigned to take the job at San Francisco, but appears like he will be helping his new coach for four years. He’s listed at 5’11”, but is probably a bit short of that (he was billed as 5’9” last season in high school). However, he was the Catholic League MVP in Chicago and finished second in the Illinois Mr. Basketball award voting.
Smith is explosive when he needs to be, but does control the game as well. He has connected on three of the four 3-point attempts he’s taken this season. Smith does have six turnovers, and there will likely be growing pains when Columbia steps up in competition, but he looks like a name Ivy League fans will know sooner rather than later.
The Lions will have to get help from the interior, though, if Columbia wants to stay in the top half of the Ivy and make the inaugural league tournament. Meisner will have to support Petrasek in the paint, while freshman Jake Killingsworth has started all three games. Engles has gone small with sophomore shooter Quinton Adlesh (6’0″) at times, and has senior Chris McComber, his biggest physical specimen, on the bench if he needs him. But the Lions also gave up 20 offensive rebounds to Stony Brook (42.6%), which doesn’t have Jameel Warney anymore, in its other victory. Columbia has forced just 26 turnovers in its first three games (13.3%), which means it might be hoping for poor shooting nights from opponents a bunch this season.
But Engles is aware and knows that there are plenty of areas he must address between now and when Columbia opens Ivy play against Cornell on Jan. 14.
“It’s a slow process, definitely,” Engles said. “The first half I thought we played really well. The second half got a little ugly. We were playing with the lead, and the intensity jumped up and we have to learn how to respond a little better to that, and play in the different transitions of the game.”
And really no matter what happens this season, it would be a surprise if Columbia is back at the bottom of the Ivy League anytime soon with Engles now in charge.
“Coach Engles is the perfect coach for us right now,” Hickman said. “He made the transition very easy for all of us.”