Columbia is 3-4 in its first seven games under Jim Engles. Considering the Lions are now in a stretch where they will play just three games in nearly four weeks, it gives us an excellent moment to step back and take stock of what has happened this season in Morningside Heights.
The Lions are 3-4 on the season, which is about where expectations were at the start of the season. But how they got there certainly has to hurt a little bit considering they lost a heartbreaker against Hofstra, 88-86, and were also competitive with Army at Levien, eventually losing 88-83.
Two of the wins were on the road, at Stony Brook and at Quinnipiac. For Engles, the team’s record is about what he expected going in, but you can tell he wishes he had a few of the late moments from the close home losses back.
“If you went by the record, record wise we’re where we were supposed to be,” Engles said. “But we’ve been very inconsistent.”
Columbia is of course doing all of this while integrating a ton of new talent into the rotation. The graduation of Maodo Lo, Alex Rosenberg, Isaac Cohen, and Grant Mullins—who then used the graduate transfer rule to head to California—left a lot of minutes to be filled. Now players such as Quinton Adlesh and Nate Hickman are being given larger roles, while freshmen Mike Smith and Jake Killingsworth have been thrust right into the fire. The Lions rank 266th nationally in experience and 286th in minutes continuity according to Ken Pomeroy. (Last season they ranked 46th and 159th in those categories.)
Of course head coach Kyle Smith also departed. Engles joined the Lions after building NJIT from a 1-win season to consecutive 20-win seasons, and he’s brought a lot of the concepts that made the Highlanders successful across the river. Even though the Lions are still okay on offense (126th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency) and struggling on defense (295th in adjusted defensive efficiency), the two units look much different from a season ago. Here’s an in-depth look at both.
The stylistic differences between Engles and Smith are readily apparent at the macro level. Last season the Lions avoided the mid-range shot—the least efficient in basketball—like the plague. Just 11.4% of Columbia’s shots during the 2015-16 season were two-point jumpers. That percentage has nearly doubled early in the 2016-17 season to 21.9%.
The Lions haven’t found a way to make those shots any more often than they had in the past. Those two-point jumpers have been worth just 0.70 points per shot this season. On the other hand, the shots at the rim (1.27 points per shot) and from three (1.14 points per shot) have been much more efficient. Engles though is okay with his players taking shots whenever they feel confident.
“I have no problem with that,” Engles said about the mid-range shots. “It’s sort of the style that we play. I want [the players] to put the ball on the floor and have a pull-up style.”
Giving the players a little more freedom has also made the offense flow a bit faster. The Lions certainly aren’t playing fast yet, but their average offensive possession length of 17.4 seconds is almost a second faster than 2015-16. It’s not because the Lions are getting into more transition though, they’re just finding some shots earlier in the shot clock. The percentage of possessions that go 25 seconds or more has fallen to 13.8% from 18.3% a season ago.
“I traditionally want the guys to take good shots,” Engles said. “I want guys to be able to take shots when they’re confident.”
The graduation of Lo and Mulllins has pushed the focus of the offense into the paint. Senior forward Luke Petrasek—Columbia’s leading returning scorer—has been the biggest key for the offense. During the first seven games Columbia scored 110.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the court (373 possessions) and just 98.5 points per 100 possessions with him off (134 possessions). Among the 10 players that have played at least 100 possessions, Petrasek is the only one who has a split under 1 point per possession when he’s not on the court.
“It’s great,” Engles said about how Petrasek has stepped up. “You have to have guys you can play around. He’s a multi-dimensional forward.”
The 6-foot-10 center’s pivotal position in the offense is also evidenced by the fast that he has a 22.5 assist rate, just behind Quinton Adlesh’s 23.3 for the best on the team. The most common recipient of those assists is Nate Hickman, who has converted shots for six of Petrasek’s 22 helpers.
Freshman Mike Smith has shown some flashes offensively, but the Lions need him to do even more as the lead guard. Before the game against Seton Hall Engles asked Smith to take on a larger portion of the scoring load. Smith delivered, scoring 23 points in the best offensive game of his young career. The Lions need Smith to step up as a third option offensively behind Petrasek and Hickman. It’ll be interesting though to see how the shots Quinton Adlesh and Lukas Meisner get change if Smith isn’t penetrating to pass as much moving forward. Both of them have received six of Smith’s 23 assists thus far this season.
Overall though the offense has been rather strong. Yes, Columbia could use to grab some more offensive rebounds—rebounding in general leaves a lot to be desired thus far this season, but they’ve cobbled together an offense that is good enough. The defense on the other hand needs some serious work.
Columbia’s defense hasn’t been good for awhile now. The last time the Lions ranked better than 200th nationally in defensive efficiency was back in 2013-14 when the Lions finished 129th by controlling the paint and hitting the glass. Back then Corey Osetkowski was manning the middle and Petrasek and Jeff Coby were freshmen. That identity is now long gone.
This season Engles has employed a man-to-man defense that has sagged significantly off the three-point line. More than 43% of opponent shots have come from 3, one of the highest percentages in the nation. Columbia’s opponents have made them too, shooting 36.5% from deep. Moving towards the paint hasn’t stopped the drives either. Opponents are making 53.6% of the two-point attempts, which ranks 283rd nationally.
Even with all the sagging, the Lions are still quite vulnerable to guard penetration. Army’s Jordan Fox, who tortured the Lions from the guard position, is a great example of the problem. The Lions couldn’t stop him anywhere on the court. The 6-foot-1 sophomore guard went 4-7 on twos and 4-7 from three. Saint Joseph’s Lamarr Kimble might’ve shot 0-7 from deep, but he was 7-9 on twos.
Combine those shooting numbers with the fact that Columbia doesn’t force any turnovers (just 15.3% of opponent possessions end on a giveaway) nor grab many offensive rebounds (opponents grab 33.5% of their misses) and it’s a recipe for a rough time defensively.
“It’s been poor. Poor at best,” Engles said about his team’s rebounding. “I don’t think it’s one specific thing. We talk about it every day and I know guys know it’s important. With our size we should be a better rebounding team.”
The Lions need someone to step up in the paint. None of Columbia’s big men are natural rim protectors. Petrasek’s block rate was 5.5% last season, but it’s lower this season. The Lions also need their big men to rebound, because the guards just aren’t doing it. Last season Isaac Cohen was the glue that held Columbia’s defense together. He often guarded the opponent’s best player, rebounded, and provided subtle help defense. There is no Cohen on this season’s roster.
Thus if Columbia is going to improve it may take a complete change in philosophy. Maybe they’ll play zone (though that might make the rebounding problem even more acute) or maybe Engles will find some players who will buckle down on the ball.
One player who might be worth taking a longer look at is CJ Davis. The Columbia defense has been nearly 12 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court this season (106.9 vs. 118.8 points per 100 possessions). But it doesn’t appear that Engles trusts the sophomore guard yet, because he was being subbed defensively for Kendall Jackson—who may be 5-foot-8, but has been excellent defensively when on the court—against Hofstra. The other player who has decent defensive splits is Chris McComber (106.9 vs. 119.2 points per 100 possessions), but the offense has struggled with him on the court. But McComber, who is a sturdy 6-foot-8, represents the type of player who could potentially help fix Columbia’s defensive problems.
There aren’t any easy fixes. But Engles has been able to concoct competitive defenses before. The past two seasons NJIT ranked right around 200th nationally in defensive efficiency with much shorter personnel than the Lions currently employ. So expect changes during the this next stretch of games.
This season is one of transition. The Lions are adapting to Engles’s system after graduating the most decorated class (in terms of wins) in Columbia history. Ken Pomeroy’s rankings suggest Columbia has fallen a bit behind Penn in the fight for the fourth spot in the inaugural Ivy League playoff. Still, there’s three-quarters of the season left, including the entire 14-game Ivy League season to play. I’ll hopefully revisit all of this in early January right before the Lions play at Cornell. Maybe there will be more answers.