Columbia enters this weekend’s trip to Harvard and Dartmouth at 4-4, two games clear of the rest of its competition for the fourth and final spot in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament.
The Lions achieved that record thanks to the best defensive turnover rate in the Ivy League (24.4%), playing five of their first six games at home, and generating extra possessions on the offensive end.
I took a deep dive into the team’s statistics back in December. Things have completely changed since then, with Jim Engles showing a tendency to go even deeper into his bench during Ivy League play. He’s received some especially strong performances because of it. Also, some of the individual trends that were present early in the season have been flipped on their head, either because of the change in scheme, player development, or randomness. But here’s a dive into what has made Columbia tick during the first half of the Ivy League season (plus one game).
The Turnover Rate and Zone Defense
After playing one game in just 19 days Columbia in the middle of December Columbia unleashed a brand new zone defense at Miami (FL). The Lions lost that game by 11, but forced 20 turnovers. Since then Engles’s club has mostly played an aggressive, trapping zone defense that attempts to suffocate dribblers in paint. It has worked. Columbia is forcing turnovers on 24.4 percent of its defensive possessions, the best mark in the Ivy League. Only four teams in the country (West Virginia, Fordham, Holy Cross and South Carolina) have forced turnovers at a higher rate over the full season. Those turnovers (and the fact that Columbia doesn’t turn the ball over offensively) generates extra possessions for the Lions. But how will Ivy League opponents react to seeing it a second time?
“That’s a good question,” Engles said. “That’s a little bit of my concern. … [The zone defense] has really helped us with some of the deficiencies we had. This is something where the adjustments we make aren’t tremendous or dramatic, but we’ll have to adjust.”
The only Ivy League team Columbia has played twice is its travel partner Cornell. Those games were back-to-back and only a week apart, but Columbia forced turnovers on 19.7 percent of Cornell’s possessions in the first matchup and then 29.7 percent of their possessions in the second. (Of course the Lions won the first on the road and then lost the rematch at home.)
One of the players that has helped the zone defense work is freshman Jake Killingsworth. He may not be the greatest athlete, but he’s 6-foot-5 and has a strong basketball IQ, which helps him get to the right places. Columbia’s defense has been 14.5 points per 100 possessions better with Killingsworth on the floor in Ivy League play, the best on the team. Engles credited Killingsworth’s IQ and work ethic.
“He’s one of those kids that finds himself at the right spot in the right time,” Engles said. “His motor is running 100 percent of the time. … His body and mind work at the same rate. It’s why he’s able to cover mistakes on both the ofesnive and defensive end.”
Engles also said that he’d like to Killingsworth rebound the ball better, which is something all of Columbia’s guards need to focus on during the second half of Ivy League play. If there’s one problem with the zone it’s that opponents are grabbing nearly 31 percent of their misses, which gives some of those extra possessions back.
One way for Columbia’s defensive rebounding to improve would be for senior forward Jeff Coby to be able to stay on the court. Coby is committing 7.4 fouls per 40 minutes in Ivy League play.
“That’s just a mental thing with him,” Engles said. “It’s very hard for him to take a step back on different possessions. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been on him, ‘You have to play hard, but you have to play smart.'”
Another player who could help with the defensive rebounding is Lukas Meisner. The sophomore missed a stretch in December with a back injury and also missed the Lions’ most recent game at Princeton. He’s probably the best defensive rebounder on the team, so his availability is a huge key moving forward.
One other note about the defense: It appears that Mike Smith is much more comfortable in the zone defense. Smith, Columbia’s dynamic freshman point guard, has been much more consistent on defense in Ivy League play than he was early in the season. “We need him to focus on both ends,” Engles said about Smith. “He’s totally bought into that.” Smith still needs to get stronger, so that he can hold up at the point of attack. Still, Smith’s defensive improvement means that he’s able to give the Lions a strong 30-plus minutes every night.
It’s amusing in a way that as Columbia’s defense has improved the offense has struggled a little bit in Ivy League play. The Lions are scoring exactly 1 point per possession and allowing 1 point per possession in Ivy play. That ranks the offense fifth and the defense fourth in the eight-team league.
But really the offensive struggles come down to one issue, an inability to get easy points near the rim. The Lions have become extremely dependent on their excellent three-point shooting (40 percent from distance during league play). Columbia is shooting 42.2 percent on two-point attempts in conference, the worst mark in the league by 6.5 percentage points (Brown is seventh at 48.7 percent). On the season the Lions are shooting 58.5 percent on shots near the rim, 224th in the country according to hoop-math.com. During Ivy League play that mark has been even worse at just 54 percent (94 of 174).
Considering the Lions play some very tall players, such as Luke Petrasek, Coby, Meisner and Conor Voss it’s surprising that those shots aren’t going in. Getting Coby, Meisner and even Killingsworth more shots near the rim might be Columbia’s best chance at improving that statistic.
Engles’s offense also gives players the freedom to take two-point jump shots, and players have been taking advantage of that flexibility. Forty percent of Smith’s shots have been two-point jumpers, because he is often met by larger defenders at the rim. He’s shooting just 33 percent of those shots.
As the Ivy League becomes the vanguard of high-efficiency offensive strategy with two-point jumpers eschewed for shots near the rim and three-point attempts, the difference in strategy is certainly notable. About 26 percent of Columbia’s shots have been two-point jumpers this season, which ranks 218th nationally, but the most in the Ivy League.
Finally, Columbia was also aided by the schedule makers in that the Lions played five of their first six games at Levien Gymnasium. In fact, a quick trip up to Ithaca to play Cornell was the only time away from campus for Columbia for almost an entire month. It allowed for concentrated practices, studying and enjoying the comforts of home. Unfortunately, it also means the Lions are now in the midst of finishing their season with six of their final eight games on the road. Besides next week’s huge home games against Penn and Princeton the Lions will be away from Levien until season’s end.
“It’s not ideal,” Engles said about the schedule. “It’s another segment that has to be addressed. We’ve played at home for a long time.”
Engles didn’t like how his team responded in the first half of either game last weekend, though the Lions did battle back against Princeton.
In addition, the Ivy League playoff has created a new wrinkle for the Lions. Since only half of the league will make it to the Palestra in March and there’s a well defined first tier of Princeton, Yale and Harvard, every game means more to the five teams fighting for that final spot.
“All of the games have been like playoff type games,” Engles said.
That will continue this weekend and next, as games at Dartmouth and home against Penn are especially big in the race for the fourth spot.
Columbia though has at least put itself in a solid situation.