Anyone who saw the Lions’ first two Ivy League games this weekend must have been struck by the similarities. In both, Columbia took the lead in the final minute of the first half. In both, the Light Blue’s opponent reversed that advantage with a mid-second-half surge. In both, a ferocious comeback from the hosts fell just short in the final seconds.
And lastly, both ended with a last-ditch three at the buzzer that would not fall for the Lions. Neither shot would have had a significant impact on the game’s result—against Penn, junior guard Brian Barbour’s three was after the buzzer, meaning it would not have counted even had it gone in, and the following night Princeton held a four-point advantage when Barbour’s long-range runner rimmed out. Yet three-point shooting has become a startling indicator of coach Kyle Smith’s team’s success.
In 11 wins, the Lions have shot 40.2 percent from beyond the arc, going 97-for-241 in those contests. In their seven losses, that percentage shrinks by nearly 10 points to 30.7 percent, on 35-for-114 shooting from long distance.
And as those numbers suggest, the Lions are not just shooting better when they are winning—they are also shooting more. In those 11 wins, they are averaging 21.9 attempts from three-point land, a 35 percent increase over their average in losing efforts of 16.2 attempts per game.
Head coach Kyle Smith saw his team’s shooting as much more of an issue of playing at home versus playing away.
“It’s tough … 0-2 [in the Ivies] at home is disappointing, but we haven’t played great at home all year, to be honest. I don’t know why that is,” Smith said. “We had good support this weekend and couldn’t capitalize. I don’t think we’ve shot the ball that well from three this year. It’s a little mind-boggling, because we’ve got to figure it out.”
A brief look at the numbers proves Smith is right, but the difference between his team’s shooting at home versus on the road seems to be only slight. The Lions have shot 37.0 percent from beyond the arc in the friendly confines of Levien Gymnasium while they have knocked down 39.2 percent of their deep balls on the road. Although that 2.2 percent may not seem like much of a difference, the Lions lost their two Ivy League games by a combined margin of six points—proof that a few three-pointers can go a long way.
“We didn’t shoot it well from three,” Smith said after the Light Blue’s loss to Penn on Friday. “If you told me that we would have gone 3-for-19 from three—it’s going to be tough to win.”
The importance of three-point shooting comes as a bit of a surprise for a team that has made its living on the defensive end of the floor. The Light Blue has held opponents to an average of 59.2 points per game, second in the league only to nationally-ranked Harvard so far this season and down from just over 70 points per game during the 2010-2011 campaign. The Lions are also holding opposing teams to 39.6 percent shooting from the field, tops in the Ivy League by almost two percentage points (as a point of comparison, the second-ranked and sixth-ranked teams are separated by six-tenths of a percentage point in the category).
Going into the weekend, Columbia ranked 24th nationally in scoring defense and 37th nationally in defensive field goal percentage.
So is there a connection between Columbia’s improved defense and the importance of its three-point shooting? While it’s hard to tell, the combination of defense and three-point shooting has been the team’s trademark this year. With only one chance at an Ivy opponent this weekend—Saturday against Cornell—it will be interesting to see how the Lions combine what has been a staunch defense so far this season with their talent, albeit inconsistent, to shoot the long ball.