Saturday night, Levien Gym doubled as a time machine back to the spring of 2016.
A year ago, the Lions blitzed opponents with three-pointers, and an aggressive but inconsistent defense. Columbia followed the same formula this weekend against Brown, racing out to a 47-28 lead behind seven treys and as many steals. But the second half was just as recognizable, when that lead was slowly chipped away: Just like in last year’s meeting, the hosts had to sweat out a hairy final minute to escape victorious.
After it was over, Columbia was also left in a familiar position: Third place in the Ivy League. Technically, the Lions share that spot with Harvard, but they’re two wins above the rest of the league — enough to make them odds-on favorites to reach the Ivy League Tournament despite a tough closing schedule.
This isn’t an ordinary case of déjà vu, for two reasons:
First, the 2017 team is almost completely new. Four starters graduated over the summer, including all three All-Ivy honorees (Maodo Lo, Grant Mullins, Alex Rosenberg). Of the five Lions who played at least 20 minutes Saturday, only Luke Petrasek even appeared in the CIT championship game last March. The sideline staff is also brand new, with Jim Engles taking over head coaching duties from Kyle Smith.
Second, it’s Columbia. Teams like Princeton, Penn and Yale have had continuous success in Ivy play, and Tommy Amaker has brought Harvard to a new level. But the rest of the league has needed to rebuild, not reload. Cornell went to three straight NCAA tournaments with a serendipitous Class of 2010; it hasn’t reached the top half of the Ivy League since. Dartmouth made a surprising postseason run two years ago, and is now fighting to escape the basement. In the last 30 years, Columbia’s only winning Ivy records came in the Lo/Rosenberg era (‘14, ’16) and the Buck Jenkins era (‘92, ’93).
These Lions aren’t as good as most of those teams were, yet. They’re still outside the top 200 in most rating systems. They’ve only played one Ivy game outside Levien Gym, and their clear path to the upper division partly reflects the rest of the league’s struggles. Still, it’s a testament to the rising program that such a young team is in position to take advantage.
New blood has helped: Mike Smith, a prolific high-school scorer, has already taken the reins of Columbia’s offense, averaging 13 points and 3.4 assists per game in Ivy play. On Saturday, he had some help from classmate Jake Killingsworth, who scored 14 points in a career-high 29 minutes. The rookie’s lack of production early in the season drew some Lions fans’ ire, and he was dropped from the starting lineup in January, but he nosed into Brown’s defense for cuts and junk rebounds, adding a pair of three-pointers.
Other contributors have come out of the shadows by adding a key skill. You know about Nate Hickman’s dunks; you might not have noticed his five assists against one turnover Saturday. C.J. Davis and Quinton Adlesh each had a double-figure game off the bench this weekend.
The most surprising leap has come from 7’1” center Conor Voss. Entering this year, the senior had never played 10 minutes in a D-I game; he was the Ivy League’s cult hero, a towering body without the skills to earn playing time. He’s now a real part of Columbia’s frontcourt rotation, grabbing five rebounds in 13 minutes Saturday with — believe it or not — three assists.
“Conor’s been terrific. He’s literally been a huge piece for us right now,” Engles said. “He’s passing the ball well, which at the beginning of the year was a concern of mine — but now he sees the floor, he’s making good passes. He got trapped there and made a terrific pass out of the trap [to Adlesh for a second-half layup]. He’s a senior, so he’s been through this, and he’s played on good teams, and he becomes a calming influence for us, because sometimes we get a little ragged.”
None of this is to overlook the most significant holdover from last year’s team, forward Luke Petrasek. The senior scored a team-high 18 points on Saturday, and he produced one of the most monstrous blocks of the season at a critical time with the Lions’ lead slipping away. (“I don’t know why he tried to dunk on me, but I just contested it,” Petrasek said after the game.) He’s a legitimate Player of the Year contender in a wide-open race, ranking in the top 10 in points, rebounds, steals and blocks.
Columbia’s change in coaches has also been successful so far. Kyle Smith was an excellent game coach (his new team, San Francisco, has blown away low expectations to reach the top 100 nationally), and he deserves some credit for the Lions’ remaining talent. Jim Engles, despite a much different style, has made some successful moves — most notably a 2-3 zone that has forced turnovers on 25% of Ivy possessions — and his Lions were well-prepared for Brown, anticipating passing lanes and moving the ball for easy layups. Over the summer, Engles landed 2017 recruit Jaron Faulds, Columbia’s highest-rated prospect ever.
When Engles was hired, I argued that the Lions had the widest range of long-term paths in the Ivy League: They could slide back toward their historical baseline, or they could build on their recent success and investment to become a consistent contender. Columbia still has a ways to go before it reaches the latter level. But their transition year performance so far is an encouraging step.