After another tough loss at home to Navy on Sunday, in which Columbia blew a sizable first-half lead for the third straight home game, men’s basketball has won just one of its first 10 games of the season and is off to its worst start in more than 15 years.
Yet there are reasons to believe that, despite not achieving their desired result, the Lions have at times performed at a level that suggests they could be capable of qualifying for the Ivy League Tournament.
Here are four reasons to remain optimistic despite the Light Blue’s 1-9 start.
Sophomore guard Mike Smith has improved his shooting in recent games.
Smith has scored in double figures every game this season, but perhaps his most impressive performance came against Navy on Sunday, where he scored a season-high 28 points on 11-for-15 shooting from the field, including four-for-five from long range and two-for-three from the charity stripe. Though Smith has struggled with his shooting in certain games—a four-for-20 performance against UConn, for example—his point output has been outstanding all year. The Lions have certainly benefited from Smith’s improved shooting, as the team has jumped out to sizable first-half leads in each of its three home contests, mostly carried by Smith.
And while the team hasn’t been able to close out games, Smith’s dynamic shooting has given the team one fighting chance after another. Against Albany, despite the Lions blowing a big lead, Smith hit a game-tying three-pointer in the final minute of the game to keep the Lions in. Again, the team has lost nine of 10 games, but though he has just a single win to show for it, Smith’s performance has only improved.
Despite a series of losses, the offense is better than last year.
According to kenpom.com, a website which analyzes Division I men’s basketball using advanced statistical models, the Lions’ offensive efficiency—a measurement that takes into account the quality of the team’s execution using various statistical analyses—has jumped by nearly 60 places, moving them from 238th in the Division I rankings to 172nd. Taking into account personnel changes, the Lions have gotten smaller, as the graduation of Luke Petrasek, CC ’17, who plays for the NBA G-League’s Greensboro Swarm, has forced head coach Jim Engles to rely on his guards.
Despite an injury to senior guard Kyle Castlin, the production of Smith, senior guard Nate Hickman, and junior guard Quinton Adlesh has helped the team play faster, attempt more three-pointers, and take advantage of open looks inside the paint. Against Quinnipiac, Hickman tallied 14 points on six-for-13, shooting from the field, while Adlesh added 16 points on six-for-10 shooting in the Lions’ narrow 89-87 loss. Coupled with first-year forward Jaron Faulds’ shooting percentage of 61.9, the Lions should continue to improve on offense.
The first-years have all stepped up at different times, and the team’s depth is better for it.
This year’s first-year class—Engles’ first recruiting class at Columbia—has seen more action on the floor due to an injury to the starter Castlin. Despite their relative inexperience in the college game, the first-years have excelled at times. Against Navy, first-year guards Myles Hanson and Tai Bibbs combined for 26 points, scoring 14 and 12, respectively, off the bench. Furthermore, Faulds—the highest-ranked recruit to attend Columbia in recent history—has given the team an entirely different look down low, as he is the only Columbia player on the roster that is a true back-to-the-basket center. Lastly, first-year guard Gabe Stefanini, who hails from Bologna, Italy but attended Bergen Catholic in nearby New Jersey, has provided a spark off the bench for Engles, averaging 10.2 minutes per contest to start the year.
The Lions’ schedule will get easier as the season goes on—and they should use the time over break to reset.
The Lions started off the season with seven straight road games. A brutal stretch for a team by any estimation, the Light Blue predictably limped to a 1-6 record in those contests. Lately, the team has simply been a victim of bad luck and poor execution to start the second half. They were competitive in every game—the average margin of defeat over the past seven games has been just 6.7 points per game.
As Engles pointed out in his press conference after the Quinnipiac loss, the team’s record could be “easily flipped” if a handful of shots had gone its way. According to kenpom.com, the Lions have been the 33rd unluckiest team in Division I this season. If that luck evens out, the Light Blue could manage to turn the season around.
While fans and alumni have every right to be concerned with the team’s slow start to the season, given that the toughest stretches of the schedule are behind them, the Lions have every opportunity to contend in the Ivy League. With Ancient Eight play set to begin during the second weekend of January, the Lions will hope the break gives them an opportunity to spend more time in practice and hone in on the inconsistencies that have contextualized the team’s abysmal start.
In kenpom.com’s rankings, Columbia is by far the highest-ranked one-win team. It should only be a matter of time before it begins churning out victories.