Men’s basketball sits at 3-12, winless in the Ivy League and in dire need of a victory. With Cornell coming to Morningside Heights on Saturday, the Lions’ offense will match up against a Big Red defense that has been shaky all season long—ranking 308th in Division I play in defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com.
The opportunity to capitalize on a weaker defense will be a welcome one for Columbia, which predictably struggled against Princeton’s 166th-ranked and Penn’s 99th-ranked defenses last weekend.
The Lions’ offensive leader all season—sophomore guard Mike Smith—has produced at a high clip, averaging 18.4 points per contest, scoring in double figures every game this season.
Yet on offense, despite dynamic scoring from Smith, the Lions are faced with a problem: over-reliance on a single player. While a naysayer could argue that head coach Jim Engles has few options besides Smith to score at a high rate, perhaps Smith’s aggressiveness has made Columbia increasingly predictable and therefore easier to repel.
Smith’s brilliance cannot be overstated—as evidenced by his most recent 11-for-23 performance at Penn. But oftentimes statistics can be misleading: for instance, on Friday, Princeton suffocated Smith all game long despite his putting up double figures and going 3-for-14 from the field.
This season, it has been a common occurrence for Smith to take 37 shots in two games. According to kenpom.com, he has been used on 28.6 percent of the team’s possession—ranking 98th among all Division I players in usage percentage. For kenpom.com, “usage” is defined as any possession that terminates with the ball in a given player’s hands. Therefore, 28.6 percent of the time, Smith has either made a shot, missed a shot, been fouled, or committed a turnover on any given possession.
Smith’s usage rate has risen from 23.8 to 28.6 percent since last season—evidence of Engles’ increasing reliance on the sophomore.
Yet, as a result of Engles’ reliance on Smith, Columbia’s offense has lacked diversity.
This season, just two Columbia players—Smith and first-year guard Gabe Stefanini—average above 20 percent in possessions used. Last season, five Columbia players ranked above 20 percent in possessions used.
A simultaneous overreliance on Smith in possessions is coupled with a massive increase in minutes, as Smith plays a little more than 90 percent of all minutes, up 11 percent from his 79.7 clip a season ago.
But coupled with Smith’s rise has been a stark drop in usage among other players, most notably of returning contributor and senior guard Nate Hickman. Hickman’s rate has fallen from 23.6 to 18.4 percent since his junior season, despite an increase in percentage of minutes played. As his struggles to shoot the ball have been well documented, Hickman’s offensive efficiency rating has fallen dramatically from 97.6 to 82.2, while Smith’s has gone virtually unchanged, rising slightly from 102.9 to 103.2.
There is no denying Hickman’s offensive decline this season, but perhaps this decline is rooted solely in his hesitancy to shoot the ball. For example, until there were approximately three minutes left in the Princeton game, Hickman had taken just one shot—a far cry from the aggressive scorer who tallied 30 points against Army just a season ago.
As evidenced by the team’s offensive output, Engles’ offense is driven by Smith. But without some aggressiveness from Hickman—and Engles’ play-calling should bear some responsibility—this team will not produce at a high enough level to compensate for a weak defense.
Strikingly, according to kenpom.com, the Lions are actually producing at a higher efficiency rating offensively, but a severe drop-off defensively has limited the team’s potential this season. Yet, as Engles has reiterated in numerous interviews, he is optimistic that his team’s shots will begin to fall in due time.
But with Ivy League play already begun, if men’s basketball wants to be more competitive, diversifying its offensive attack may require more than just knocking down more shots.