Men’s basketball finished last season the same way it began: on a losing streak. Despite boasting an offense capable of routinely scoring upwards of 75 points, the Lions were unable to translate that potential into wins due in large part to two factors: an unkind schedule and a lacking defensive identity.
The Lions will face a different start this year, as they open their season on Saturday in Poughkeepsie, facing off against Marist (0-1), before returning to New York City proper the following weekend for a three-game tournament in the Bronx.
The Lions began last season with a crippling seven straight away games ranging in location from Villanova, Pennsylvania to Farmville, Virginia. Of those seven games, they came away with a single victory. It was a disorienting beginning that placed the team in a deep hole from day one.
Head coach Jim Engles does not deny the effect last year’s schedule had on the team, openly stating that it negatively influenced the overall attitude of the team. But he also talks about how it brought a kind of clarity in terms of what aspects of the team’s identity they needed to shore up. Most notably: defense and rebounding.
“When you play on the road, there’s obviously a lot of different challenges that you have to come up against,” Engles said. “You have to defend in order to win on the road—you have to defend, you have to rebound—that’s probably a big focal point, and it’s why we’re focusing on that so much now.”
The Lions finished last season giving up an average of 76 points per game, good for third-worst in the Ivy League ahead of just Brown and Cornell. Likewise, they gave up the second-most rebounds to opponents, nearly 37 per game, according to the Ivy League website.
Columbia will look to a combination of new first-year talent in conjunction with expected development from veteran players in order to right the ship and imbue the team with a kind of consistency on both ends of the floor.
The team lost three key contributors in Lukas Meisner, Nate Hickman, and Kyle Castlin, looking now to sophomores Tai Bibbs and Gabe Stefanini, and senior Rodney Hunter, who are all likely to begin the season in the starting lineup alongside stalwart juniors Mike Smith and Patrick Tapé.
In particular, Smith, who averaged the fourth-most points in the Ivy League with 17.9 per game, will look to improve this year. Despite his high output, it was done largely with inefficient shooting.
“Last year I didn’t shoot the ball well so I know that I worked on shooting the ball for sure off the dribble and reading pick-and-rolls,” Smith said. “I think I worked on shooting more for sure this year.”
If Smith is able to retain his role as an offensive force, the team can focus on developing their high-potential players, such as Stefanini.
“I expect a lot from him,” Engles said of Stefanini. “He adds a lot for us offensively because he’s a multi-position guard that can play one and two, and I think defensively he plays with a lot of energy.”
The team possesses a clear path to success: finding a way to retain their strong offensive identity from last season, their efficiency and volume at the three-point line, and their quick pace, while instilling the importance of staunch defense into their players.
The Lions are undersized this season, with just one player standing at about six-foot-five. The team is quick to point to it as a potential strength. It produces easy mismatches on the offensive end and allows for the team to outpace their opponents and bombard them with shot attempts.
“If you’re small on defense, it’s a mismatch on offense. So it helps and it hurts,” Smith said. “That means we all have to team rebound. … It’s harder for big teams to run with us if we’re smaller.”
Marist is recovering from a tough loss against Army this past Tuesday. The team’s main weakness came in its overreliance on star senior point guard Brian Parker, who put up 25 points. However, the next-highest scoring starter for the Red Foxes was senior Isaiah Lamb with 5.
If the Lions are able to isolate and apply pressure to Parker, and implement a steady iteration of their pace-and-space offense featuring their new personnel, it should mark a strong start to the season.
The team’s quest for a second-ever Ivy League title will begin on Saturday, Nov. 10, against Marist in Poughkeepsie at 7 p.m.