Basketball has gotten faster, and Columbia is trying to keep up.
In the NBA, the Golden State Warriors have exploited three-pointers, setting a new standard and pushing the pace of play. At the college level, some teams are seeking the same success through a similar method. While Columbia has historically lagged behind the Ivy League’s average speed of play, basketball’s head coach Jim Engles hopes to keep pushing the limits of the Lions’ pace of play.
“We’re trying to play faster,” the second-year head coach said. “I think we have improved our pace of play over the season, over the first four, five games, so it’s definitely something we’re focused on.”
According to kenpom.com’s adjusted tempo metric—a team’s calculated expected possessions per 40 minutes against an average Division I team—Columbia currently ranks 128th out of 351 Division I teams, just behind last year’s ranking of 123rd. As it stands, the Light Blue started this season with the fifth-fastest tempo among Ivy teams, which is a relatively fast pace by Columbia standards, after former head coach Kyle Smith favored a slower pace for a majority of his tenure at Columbia.
Unlike a season ago, however, the Light Blue started this season with seven games on the road, facing high-level competition in Villanova, Penn State, and Connecticut. As a result, the Lions’ tempo so far this season may be more of a reflection on their competition, but their expected 71.1 possessions per 40 minutes up to this point is a high for the team this decade. Last year, Engles already drove the Light Blue to its fastest mark in recent years with an expected 68.9 possessions.
For any given team, however, faster play is not always better. For example, last year’s Ivy League champion Princeton—which cruised through Ivy play untouched—played at the slowest pace of the league by far.
Bigger teams with slower players might prefer slower games and the opportunity to set up a strong defense during each possession. But for smaller teams like Columbia, the opposite may hold true.
“I think we’re a little bit more guard-oriented, and I think [we can] take advantage of our speed, take advantage of the size of our guys,” Engles said.
Just over half of the Lions’ points this season, in fact, have come from their three starting guards, some of the shortest players on the team. Sophomore guard Mike Smith, standing at 5 feet 11 inches, leads the team with 144 points so far this season, and junior guard Quinton Adlesh, at 6 feet, ranks third on the team so far with 88. It may help the Lions, therefore, to play at a faster pace, given their talented, yet smaller, guards.
At NJIT, where Engles served as head coach for eight years before coming to Columbia, he pushed a physically smaller team—where his tallest starter stood at 6 feet 5 inches—to play more quickly en route to two CollegeInsider.com Tournament semifinals in 2015 and 2016.
Based on last year’s two- and three-point attempt success rates, Columbia averaged 1.077 points from a three-point attempt and 0.944 points from a two-point attempt. The difference, 0.133 points, is the largest in the Ivy League from last year. Overall, a difference of 0.133 points may not shape a season plan, but it’s an area of interest that could support Engles’ decision to emphasize three-point attempts, one way of speeding up play.
At this past Monday’s game against Quinnipiac, two mechanisms took effect: increased three-point attempts led to faster play, and faster play led to better two-point shots. The game was “faster” than the Lions’ average this season, with 87 possessions for Columbia, keeping in mind Quinnipiac’s low D-I ranking.
The Lions posted 30 three-point attempts, significantly higher than last year’s 21.7 per game average, and a decent 36.7 percent conversion rate. More notably, the Light Blue collected 25 of 35 two-point attempts for a blistering 71.4 two-point success rate. As shown by the shot charts from Monday, this seems to come from the low amount of mid-range shots and high number of layups.
It’s hard to say with certainty that this shot composition comes from a higher pace of play, though that higher pace is the goal. The Lions had a healthy number of three-point attempts and conversion rate, and even more impressive two-point conversion rate. Proponents of a faster tempo would claim that the better, or higher percentage, shots are a result of the increased pace of play, and therefore an offensive showing like Monday’s would be considered a success.
The game, however, was a disappointing loss overall. Quinnipiac won by two points, finishing the game with a 50 percent three-point success rate on 34 attempts. Overall, the Lions’ offense performed well but a stronger defense could have changed the game’s outcome. Out of 351 teams, kenpom.com ranks Columbia’s defense as 261st, so before the Lions accelerate their pace, they will have to make sure they are defensively secure enough to handle a faster game.
Moving forward, a faster or slower tempo alone likely won’t determine Columbia’s fate, but it could offer a decent sign for how well the Lions control their games. If they significantly increase their three-point attempts, they may follow in the steps of Golden State and gain from a marginally higher return in expected points per shot. Plus, if Columbia—the second-shortest team in the league—can hasten its play, it may outrun their opponents.
The Lions’ tempo this season, therefore, will indicate how well Engles can implement this specific strategy and keep an eye on the overall score lines to monitor its overall effectiveness.
“Playing at a faster pace, I feel like we’re all in pretty good shape,” first-year forward Jaron Faulds said. “We’ve done a lot of conditioning this season. I feel like whatever big man is on us will have a harder time keeping up.”