NEW YORK — For Columbia, getting past UC Irvine and winning the CIT title will be a tall order — in every sense of the word.
The Anteaters’ defense is ranked 36th in the country in KenPom in opponent-adjusted points per possession (96.7). They’re probably the toughest defensive puzzle the Lions will have to solve this season outside of Yale.
The big reason for UC Irvine’s defensive success is the presence of 7-foot-6 center Mamadou N’Diaye. After introducing himself to the country with a strong performance in a narrow loss to Louisville in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, the Senegal product has turned in his best statistical effort this year.
N’dIaye finished ninth in the country with 87 blocks (2.4 per game) and turned in career highs in scoring (12.1 points per game), rebounding (7.2 rebounds per game), and, most importantly, minutes played — he’s logging 23.1 minutes per game this year, which is especially impressive in light of the fact that players at the extreme end of the height spectrum like N’Diaye often struggle with their conditioning over the course of a game.
His presence is unlike anything the Lions have ever seen — or will see, for that matter. They tried to replicate his presence during today’s practice by having coach Kyle Smith sit on the shoulders of an assistant.
In order to neutralize N’Diaye’s presence, the Lions will have to get their three-point stroke going early — something they struggled with in the semifinals against NJIT on Sunday. Columbia started out 0-for-11 from beyond the arc before heating up in the second half.
“We took some bad [shots] in the first 10 minutes, that’s the reason we didn’t shoot it well,” said senior guard Maodo Lo, who sits just 25 points away from the Lions’ all-time scoring record. “We drove it to the basket more [later on], Alex [Rosenberg] drew some fouls, and we started taking open shots and started making them.”
That adjustment worked against an NJIT team that the the Lions could easily outmuscle, but it won’t fly against UC Irvine. With N’Diaye clogging the lane (he’s collecting 23.6 percent of all possible defensive rebounds while on the floor this year), Columbia is best off avoiding him entirely and shooting over the Anteaters’ guards.
Considering how well Lo is playing right now — five straight games with at least three treys — a hot start could bury UC Irvine early.
An alternate pathway to victory would involve the Lions breaking their usual character and playing at a bit of a faster pace than they usually do. Though they may not be able to run N’Diaye ragged, he still takes a while to get up and down the floor. If Columbia can attack the paint before UC Irvine and N’Diaye can fully get into their defensive sets, it could get some easy looks at the basket.
Enough, perhaps, to give the Lions a postseason tournament title on their own floor and send their seniors out in style.