Defense has unexpectedly become Columbia’s calling card, but it helped drive the Lions to a 66-54 victory over Dartmouth on Friday night at Levien Gymnasium.
The Lions struggled in a man-to-man defense under new head coach Jim Engles, but in mid-December he began the switch to zone-heavy scheme. That switch has made all the difference. Columbia has held five opponents under 1 point per possession in its last eight games and has gone 4-1 in those contests.
Against Dartmouth the Lions forced 21 turnovers, allowed just 14 free throw attempts and just 11-26 (42%) on twos. The first half defense was even stronger and it allowed Columbia to build a 12-point lead by the break.
“I just think it allows us to play in shorter spaces,” Engles said about why the zone defense is forcing so many turnovers. “We were really having a problem at the beginning of the year of positioning ourselves correctly. We’re not a very communicative team and it forces us to communicate more as a team and I think we’re playing more as a unit.”
Senior forward Jeff Coby, who scored 12 points in 26 minutes, echoed the sentiments about how important the communication is inside the zone defense.
“Coach implemented a zone and when you play zone it forces you to talk a lot more and communicate, so now I think we all have a sense of where everyone will be and we’re starting to play a little more cohesive on defense and it’s translating right now,” Coby said.
The zone defense also allows Engles to play an extremely deep rotation, which is helpful for back-to-back Ivy League nights. The Lions played 11 players on Friday night, which has become the new normal. All 11 players had entered the game within the first four minutes as Engles tried to get everyone acquainted with the game before settling into his rotation.
That rotation includes a number of taller players, including Coby, Luke Petrasek—who scored a game-high 18 points, Lukas Meisner, freshman Patrick Tape, and maybe Columbia’s most unexpected contributor, senior Connor Voss.
Voss had never played double-digit minutes against a Division I opponent before this season, but he’s become a valuable defensive piece in the middle of Columbia’s zone. He played 10 minutes against Dartmouth and was generally disruptive in the middle. His dunk and three offensive rebounds were just a bonus on the other end.
“He’s a tough aggressive kid and I’m preaching toughness and being really aggressive here,” Engles said about Voss. “He has been the guy who has expanded his game since the first day and I’m really proud of the way he’s been playing. He’s really helped us a lot.”
Another player that has really helped the defense thrive is 6’5″ freshman Jake Killingsworth. Killingsworth was a part of what appeared to be Columbia’s best lineup on Friday night alongside Mike Smith, Petrasek, Coby, and Nate Hickman. Even though he’s just a fresman, Killingsworth is the glue that can hold the zone defense together with quick reactions from his spot near the top of the three-point arc.
“He’s just one of those guys who has a knack for being around the ball,” Engles said. “Defensively it’s like he’s two different guys out there at times. He can really be in two different spots. … He becomes a lot like a point guard on defense because he covers up a lot of different mistakes for us.”
Now that the defense is playing better the Lions need to find their rhythm again offensively. After a strong game last weekend against Cornell, Smith struggled with his shot and scored just five points on 1-8 shooting from the field. The Lions frontcourt was able to pick him up. Columbia also had excellent scoring balance, as seven players scored at least five points. While Engles would like to see some more shots go down, ideally that’s how the offense should operate.
Lukas Meisner chipped in five points of his own, but it was his contributions on the defensive end that made an even bigger impact. The sophomore forward grabbed eight rebounds in the first half, blocked a shot and was generally disruptive throughout the game on that end.
“That’s definitely my No. 1 job when I get in the game. That’s definitely how I get in the game I don’t worry about anything else other than playing defense and gettting rebounds,” Meisner said. “So there’s definitely an emphasis.”
Meisner also echoed some of his teammates’ thoughts about why the defense has been so successful.
“I think we needed to find a defense that fits for our team and now we’ve found a defense that fits for our team,” Meisner said. “I think we’re a pretty athletic and tall team and I think that helps a lot, so I think that’s why we’re better right now.”
The defense has become so good that it is becoming Columbia’s calling card in Ivy League games.
A few other notes:
Petrasek found his rhythm again. After having an off shooting night against Cornell last Saturday, Petrasek found his shot and scored 18 points in 21 minutes against the Big Green. There was a stretch in the second half where he scored eight straight points to push Columbia’s advantage from 10 to 18 and basically seal the game.
“I just had good looks and I had a couple plays run for me which helped just to get things going,” Petrasek said about the run. “Nothing special, just playing the flow of the game and it just happened to fall in my hands.”
The offense may need to be a bit more patient. While Engles’s offensive system gives players more freedom to take early shots than his predecessor Kyle Smith, it sometimes leads to some interesting decisions. The Lions are much more effective when they can play inside-out offensively either by feeding Coby and Petrasek in the post or driving to the basket. It took the Lions the first eight minutes or so to really start driving the ball against the Big Green.
“We’ve just got to know who we are,” Engles said about the offense. “We have to take shots. We have to be a little more patient on offense I think. We played a little bit scattered against Cornell. I thought we played with better pace today. One of the things we have is we have an advantage inside and I thought those guys both did a good job. And then we opened it up at the end and Luke made a couple of threes, which was good.”
It’s a quick turnaround. While Engles has been an assistant in the Ivy League before, this is his first back-to-back weekend as head coach. Tonight the Lions will be right back at it against Harvard.
“As an assistant if it’s your scout then you’re a little bit more involved, but as a head coach you’re involved in every game in the strategy and in the preparation,” Engles said.
“That’s the one thing that makes this league extremely unique and it makes it a challenge, not only on the players,” Engles said. “But the one thing I noticed, as an assistant you’re here till 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and then you’re back for your walkthrough at 10 o’clock. So it’s a long weekend for the staff.”