Columbia is playing Uglyball – and it’s working

Kyle Smith's Uglyball approach is paying dividends for the Light Blue. (Columbia Athletics)
Kyle Smith’s Uglyball approach is paying dividends for the Light Blue. (Columbia Athletics)

What is the most memorable basketball offense of all time? Chances are your mind just jumped to memories of the Showtime Lakers, the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, the Stockton and Malone pick and roll, or the present-day Spurs. Visions of great ball movement, transition dunks and helpless defenders are probably dancing through your head like sugarplums at this very second.

The offense Kyle Smith and the 2014-15 Columbia Lions are running more resembles the Four Corners offense which, while ultimately leading to many victories, sucked the life out of the game and ultimately led to the implementation of the shot clock. Despite playing at this snail’s pace, only four teams in the NCAA have attempted a higher percentage of three-pointers than the Lions. This combination of a slow tempo and an absurdly high percentage of threes taken has created a painful-to-watch offense that is the key to Columbia’s season.

As squads at both the NBA and the college level have discovered in recent years, three-point shooting can be the focal point of a successful offense. Since the college line is closer than the NBA one, it makes the slingshot for potential underdogs to take down Goliath even more accessible. This is the focal point of Columbia’s Uglyball (trademark pending), combined with a pace designed to limit possessions and make execution on both ends that much more critical.

Despite having the numbers to run in transition, at times the team has outright refused to push the ball and go for a transition opportunity to draw a layup or foul, retreating to the comfort of slowly dribbling past halfcourt and allowing the offense and defense to get set before running a play. Smith’s offense features some Princeton elements, with Cory Osetkowski and Jeff Coby often handling the ball at the pinch post, looking for cutters or shooters to get open beyond the arc. Unfortunately, neither are particularly adept at the passing portion of the offense, as they often have given up the opportunity to make a backdoor pass in lieu of bringing the ball back out beyond the arc and running the clock.

Columbia’s possessions last an average of 22 seconds and the Lions average 58 possessions a game. Only four NCAA teams play at a slower pace and only two teams feature fewer possessions per contest. At one point in the game against Wagner on Nov. 18, Columbia managed to put together a two-minute possession thanks to a combination of offensive rebounds and defensive fouls: It ended in a turnover.

I assure you I would have picked a different moniker than Uglyball to describe this team if the shots beyond the arc the offense is designed to create were falling at a proportional rate to how often they are taken. An astounding 48.3 percent of Columbia possessions end in a three-pointer, yet the team is a pitiful 31.7 percent from deep. They are a team that shoots threes at a rate even higher than the Houston Rockets, while hitting them at a rate equal to Brooklyn’s Bogdan Bogdanovic. What is even more shocking about this development is that they have been generating good looks. Smith and his coaching staff have come up with pet plays to get open shots for the three best shooters on the team: Steve Frankoski, Maodo Lo and Chris McComber. Yet these three are only shooting 32 percent from deep this year, including Frankoski’s 27.5 percent. Combine this with the fact that for some reason Osetkowski has taken 17 threes in eight games (while only hitting two), and there is clearly room for improvement within the offense.

If you watched this team hang with Kentucky’s lineup of future NBA draft picks, it is clear that Columbia is not as helpless as some predicted they would be once Alex Rosenberg went down for the season. The first half of the Kentucky game was their blueprint: a 25-possession half that ended with the Lions up by two after jumping out to an 11-0 lead. The team would end up scoring 0.90 points per possession against the Wildcats, the best rate any team has put up against UK this year. It is hard to see this team being as good as Harvard or even Yale once Ivy League play begins but a stunning run to the tournament is achievable if the team stays healthy and the players who should be draining three pointers start doing so. With Uglyball, Smith has created the Platonic ideal for an upset-minded team come March. It is far from watchable at times but the pieces are in place to make a dangerous machine as the season progresses: If Columbia starts making some of the open three-pointers the offense is generating, it might just be the Lions pulling that upset.

4 thoughts on “Columbia is playing Uglyball – and it’s working

  1. Great post…insightful and readable. When the shot clock was introduced I remember a discussion in which one of the participants suggested to Pete Carril that he might have to change his offensive style. Carril, never one to suffer fools, scoffed, “If we can’t get a shot we want in less than 25 seconds we don’t have the right players in the game.” Princeton’s defensive excellence was as much a function of its offensive style as it was defensive skill. Fewer possessions leads to lower scores. I am sure Smith would agree. Lengthy, tempo-controlling possessions require the opponent to play defense longer than is comfortable, often resulting in exploitable breakdowns. Simple math teaches the value of the three point shot. Making them is not a matter of math, however, and the Lions will have to get a better yield from theirs. I suspect they will. A week ago the Tigers were 345th in the nation defending the three. Smith probably wishes he could play us sooner than February,

    • I would argue that somehow Princeton is not playing “Princeton” basketball this season. Extremely high scores (for the opponents) and a lot less Carill style of play. They just don’t look like team that Palestra fans would taunt with “boring” chants. (They will always be boring to me however, no matter how they play. )

      The AQ

  2. Not sure I would agree with the term ugly. I have seen too many teams in college and the pros take horrible quick Shota that lead to run outs.

    I bet the math Smith uses works in his favor. High basketball IQ coaches, combined with high basketball players are a thing of the past.

    Hats off to a coach who has a system and sticks with it. I’m sure the math will revert back to the mean for Smith and their long range shooting.

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