One could quite easily make the case that the five most important people to Columbia’s 2015-16 10-4 Ivy season and CIT title run are no longer with the team. Maodo Lo and Alex Rosenberg are overseas. Twitterless Grant Mullins is on the left coast, so is San Francisco head coach Kyle Smith, and Isaac Cohen is in the professional world. It would have been easy to expect a team that lost that degree of experience and their coach to struggle immensely implementing into a new season. But thanks to a strong freshman class, an affable guard with a knack for clutch shots, and a big man who leads the team in scoring, the Lions expect to make some noise in this new Ivy basketball world.
Speaking to them after practice this week, it is clear that Nate Hickman and Luke Petrasek have no issues with the situation they were thrown into. Petrasek, playing his final season under a different coach with a drastically different style than what Kyle Smith liked to run, has embraced his outside game to the tune of a 38 percent average from deep. He praised new head coach Jim Engles, saying that while the team is still learning to break the habits they learned under Smith, it was easy for the team to buy into his system, and he came in having earned their respect from competing against him and seeing what he had done at NJIT.
As the team’s only returning starter, Petrasek’s role has fit in well with the pace-and-space offense that Engles likes to run and that Smith shied away from in favor of a grind-it-out offense. When I asked Petrasek which NBA players he likes to pattern himself after, he said he tried to emulate Chandler Parsons, Kevin Durant “even though I can’t dribble as well as KD” and “a young Enes Kanter,” thus marking the first time in basketball history that phrase has been used.
Hickman’s story is much different than Petrasek’s but have led to similar results. Buried in the guard rotation last year behind Lo, Rosenberg, and now-injured sixth man Kyle Castlin, Nate only averaged 3.8 points per game in fewer than 12 minutes of game play per night. But with a new coach and a new style, he’s been handed the keys to the offense. Hickman acknowledged that going from bench to scorer has been a big adjustment, something he hasn’t done since high school, “but something I always felt prepared for … mentally prepared for, just dreaming of it.”
He credited Engles for making his adjustment easy and for easing everyone into their new roles well, but it is evident from his play on the court that Hickman has been waiting for this moment for a while. The most obvious example? Calmly stroking a 30-foot overtime buzzer beater to beat Colgate at Levien Gym, leading to an Ivy Player of the Week nod.
Petrasek had an off shooting night in Columbia’s home loss to Cornell, a loss that would normally portend disaster for Columbia’s season. But with the new Ivy League Tournament allowing more leeway for teams to struggle in conference play both he and Hickman were confident the Lions could put themselves in the top four by the end of the season.
“In years past you lose one game and you’re like, ‘It’s over,’” said Hickman, “Last year it was so competitive at the top, you couldn’t really lose and still have a shot at the championship.” Petrasek noted that even though a team getting having a shot at winning the league with a 7-7 regular season is “unheard of in Ivy League culture,” each team is still playing every game like there is no Ivy tournament, partially because upperclassmen are still used to a winner-take-all regular season, and partially because no matter the playoff format, he just hates losing to other Ivy League teams.
The Lions likely aren’t going to challenge for the regular season title this year, but the race for a playoff spot and a chance to win two at the Palestra and get into the NCAA Tournament is well within reach. There will be freshman mistakes, errors in execution, and likely another loss or two in the mold of their late-game struggles with Cornell. But even being average this season would surpass some of the expectations (or lack thereof) that the Lions were saddled with before the season. Now it’s up to Nasty Nate and Young Enes to get Columbia into the Top Four and beyond.