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Sarah-Jayne Austin / SSP

The Lions split their six games over winter break behind the continued dominance of Mike Smith, who is averaging career highs in points and minutes this season.

While most Columbia students packed their bags and headed home for a chance to relax after a stressful finals period, for the athletes whose sports compete during some of the coldest months of the year, winter break does not offer that same respite. Men’s basketball is one of the teams kept busy over the break.

While some of their classmates were sleeping in and catching up on the second season of “You,” the Lions went 3-3 in six total contests, including the important win over Cornell in their Ivy League opener.

Although the Light Blue had an uneven winter break, the 0.500 finish over this six-game stretch raised the team’s winning percentage from 0.273 to 0.353, the exact same record as last year at this point in the season. The crucial difference between the two seasons is the presence of senior guard Mike Smith, who went down after only eight games last year. With Smith back to full health this season, head coach Jim Engles and the rest of the Lions coaching staff have been relying heavily on Smith in both scoring and playmaking.

While some might shy away from the challenges that accompany the roles of the primary ball handler, scorer, and distributor, Smith has risen to the challenge and then some. Thus far this season, Smith is averaging 36.4 minutes per game, up 4.7 from last year’s pre-injury numbers. In concert with the increased playing time, Smith has improved his scoring up to 21.0 points per game from the 15.8 he produced in last year’s injury-shortened season.

Over the break, Smith’s best game came at home in a heartbreaking 67-66 loss against the University of Albany on Dec. 30. While Smith’s 6-16 finish from the field would in no way constitute a dominant performance, it was his ability to cash in from the free-throw line that kept the Lions in this game. The senior guard went 14-16 from the charity stripe, both career highs.

But while most casual followers of the team might have expected Smith’s improvement after a long offseason, it is the emergence of first-year guard Jack Forrest that should have the Lions excited.

Forrest is currently the second-leading scorer on the team at 10.1 points per game. Perhaps none of his points this season have been more important than the team-leading 23 that he scored in the Lions’ Ivy League opener against in-state rival Cornell, a game the Light Blue won 75-61. In this game, Forrest went 10-15 from the field, including 3-5 from behind the arc, in a performance that earned him Ivy League Rookie of the Week. Forrest’s development over the next couple of weeks could be instrumental in setting the ceiling for this team.

Another aspect of Forrest’s game that has Morningside Heights abuzz is his shooting, as the Lower Merion alumnus and Pennsylvania native is currently shooting 44.6 percent from three on 56 attempts, the third-highest number of attempts behind Smith and senior guard Jake Killingsworth. Forrest’s success from behind the arc is particularly impressive as it is only one small part of his game. While 76.2 percent of Killingsworth’s shots have come from deep, three-pointers have only accounted for 47.1 percent of Forrest’s field goal attempts.

While three-point marksmen such as Killingsworth can always help a team, Forrest’s skill set bodes much better for the chances that he will be a featured member of the Lions for years to come.

While Forrest’s emergence should imbue the Lions with some amount of confidence as they enter Ivy League play, the team has shown a real weakness playing on the road. The Light Blue is still seeking its first victory away from Levien Gymnasium after dropping its first nine games outside of Morningside Heights.

The upcoming three-game stretch outside of New York City should help make clear if the Lions’ inability to win away from home is merely by chance or if the Lions have a bigger problem on their hands.

The Lions next take on Cornell at Newman Arena in Ithaca, New York on Saturday, Jan. 25 at 4 p.m.

Senior staff writer Harris Walker can be contacted at harris.walker@columbiaspectator.com. Follow him on Twitter @harriswalker17.

Basketball Jim Engles Mike Smith Jack Forrest Jake Killingsworth
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