Tonight’s game between Columbia and Princeton is pretty much going to determine which one-loss team will be in the best position to challenge Yale the rest of the way. (Both teams have home games remaining against the Bulldogs.)
That the Lions are even in this position at all is due to the performance of their interior defense.
Against Penn on Friday night, Columbia’s front line performed better than it had all year, limiting the Quakers’ 6-foot-10 center, Darien Nelson-Henry, to just four made field goals on 12 attempts. The result: a 63-53 Lions win — the fewest points they’ve allowed all season.
As Penn coach Steve Donahue pointed out postgame, the Quakers’ offense at this point in the season is designed to run through Nelson-Henry, letting the big man pass frequently out of the post and back down on iso looks.
Columbia coach Kyle Smith let his own bigs body up one-on-one on Nelson-Henry for the most part, demonstrating a tremendous amount of trust in his forwards.
Luke Petrasek had his worst offensive night of the season (three points on seven shots), but more than made up for it at the other end of the floor. When Nelson-Henry had an open look under the basket for a layup that would have given Penn a 26-25 lead with 2:35 to go in the first half, it was Petrasek who recovered in time to reject the shot.
Even Alex Rosenberg, whose struggles at the defensive end have been well-documented throughout his career, performed admirably when he was on an island against Nelson-Henry. He made one of the more impressive defensive plays of his season late in the first half when he swatted away an entry feed to Nelson-Henry (who had inside position), leading directly to a turnover and foul.
“I thought they did a great job,” Smith said of Petrasek and Rosenberg. “He’s a tough cover. Jeff [Coby] was the one who helped big in the second half. Even Chris McComber — he’s the one guy that can really lean on [Nelson-Henry] and just wear him down a little bit, so maybe he missed some of those short bunnies late [because of that].”
Lukas Meisner only played for two minutes after picking up two quick fouls — mostly because of the performance of Coby and McComber off the bench. Coby in particular finished with five defensive rebounds and one block.
“[We just] tried to be on [Nelson-Henry’s] left shoulder because we know his favors his left shoulder,” Coby said. “And we had a lot of help from the guards, stunting at him, trying to make him have harder decisions to make when he caught the ball down low.”
Of the guards, Grant Mullins stood out the most. The senior finished with six steals and looks like he’s all the way back.
As Michael James (@ivybball) continually and correctly points out, team quality is best represented by a range of results, rather than a single overall data point. It’s not fair to extrapolate a lot after one game. Columbia isn’t going to hold teams to 17-for-47 shooting like it did against Penn every night. The Lions almost certainly won’t do that tonight against Princeton, a team with a very efficient offense than can attack in multiple ways.
But at the same time, it’s clear to see that the Lions have improved tremendously at the defensive end, leaving behind second-half utter defensive collapses like the Longwood and Saint Joseph’s disasters as a thing of the past. The lower bound of expectations for Columbia’s defensive performance on a nightly basis has surely been raised.
“There were a couple of things going on early in the year,” Smith said. “Grant being a year off, you could see him — and he’s playing really well right now — a year off, having rust. Rosie [Rosenberg] being rusty and then having the injury and Isaac [Cohen] being hurt.”
Now fully healthy, the Lions are in the position they’ve expected to be in all year — in striking distance of first place.