Columbia will trot out its perfect home record again tonight as it hosts Wagner at Levien Gymnasium.
On Saturday the Lions (4-4, 3-0 home) used a 19-2 first half run and a critical late free-throw from sophomore forward John Daniels to overcome an 18-point first-half deficit and turn back Stony Brook, 73-72 in Levien. Head coach Kyle Smith’s squad is likely to get all it can handle once again from a Seahawks team that is coming off a dramatic win of its own—a 73-68 OT triumph at Sacred Heart.
“It should be a very competitive game,” Smith said. “On paper, this should be a really good game.”
Smith noted the similarities between the two squads—Wagner (4-3) has played many of the same opponents as Columbia, and has largely come away with similar results. The Seahawks traveled to Stony Brook earlier this year and came away with a 58-54 win. Another common opponent, St. John’s, downed both Wagner and Columbia. The Seahawks did win at Bucknell, where the Lions lost by five last Wednesday.
“I think they’re very good and get a lot of scoring from the perimeter,” Smith said. “Their guards are very good, so they’re similar.”
The Seahawks are led by 6-foot-5-inch junior guard Tyler Murray, who is likely to defensively draw the Light Blue’s top scorer, junior guard Noruwa Agho. Murray leads the team with 18.7 points a game, and has shot a scorching 48.6 percent from beyond the arc. He also is Wagner’s top rebounder, with 5.6 boards per game.
“I think it’s a good matchup for Noruwa, I think he’s up to the challenge,” Smith said. “He’s [Murray] a good player, he’s not one-dimensional. He can make threes, he can put in on the floor, he can go right, he can go left, he can shoot the pull-up, he can get to the basket, he gets out in transition, so it’ll be a challenge. Everyone’s going to have to be alert … Coach Altman, who’s the scout, said he’s probably the best perimeter player we’ve seen thus far, and there’s some good teams we’ve played.”
Agho, who is averaging 16.3 points per game, will likely not be tasked with Murray for all 40 minutes.
“We’ll have some other guys be ready, in case of foul trouble or we might need to tweak some things defensively,” Smith added.
Wagner freshman guard Latif Rivers has also come on strongly for the Seahawks, much as Lions’ freshman sharpshooter Steve Frankoski has for Columbia. Rivers is averaging 16.4 points per game while Frankoski is coming off a 21-point performance against Stony Brook.
In dealing with Wagner’s potent backcourt, the Lions perimeter players will be getting help from their big men in the post. Exactly who will be getting the majority of the minutes under the baskets is a tougher question.
“All of our inside guys, they’re similar in a lot of ways in terms of their level, but they all bring different attributes, and sometimes it’s different who’s better matchup-wise,” Smith said. “For Wagner, we want to play good defenders even though their posts haven’t been good scorers, but, understandably, we’re going to need to help on their guards.”
Smith mentioned senior center Max Craig and senior forward Brian Grimes as the likely starters for Tuesday, but acknowledged the progress of Daniels and fellow sophomore big man Mark Cisco. Senior Asenso Ampim turned in a 16-point, 8-rebound performance against Stony Brook and is also in the picture.
Columbia’s rotation has experienced changes in the backcourt, too, where Agho and Frankoski are accompanied by sophomore point guard Brian Barbour. In total, 10 different players are averaging over 10 minutes of playing time while only three are averaging more than 20 per game. In explaining the flux in minutes for many of his players, Smith pointed to the inevitable ups and downs associated with the length of the season.
“As the season goes on, things change, guys change, roles change,” Smith said. “It’s funny…we’ve added a fifth perimeter player to the rotation in Van Green. It sort of changes roles and shorts some guys’ minutes and you never know what’s going to happen.”
Green could play a larger role against Wagner, particularly given the need for an added defensive presence against Murray and Rivers.
“I think we need that to be effective, just to give us a little more depth on the perimeter defensively,” Smith said
When asked if fans should expect the type of high-scoring affair that led to last year’s 102-91 triumph, Smith—a first-year head coach himself—pointed to a change in command at Wagner in predicting a much lower scoring contest.
“I think they hang their hat on their defensive intensity, and they’re very good defensively around the rim,” Smith said. “There’s a different coach—there’s a different sheriff in town over there. They are going to guard you—there’s no doubt that they’re hard-nosed and good defensively.”
Ultimately, though, it may come down to how well the Lions can deal with Wagner’s potent duo in the backcourt. If they can, the new head man in Morningside Heights will likely stay unbeaten in Levien.