At the midway(ish) point of Ivy play, Columbia stands at 4-2, good enough for third place when factoring in its win over Harvard.
This weekend, the Lions experience their first full Ivy road weekend of the season, beginning with a Penn squad desperate for its first Ivy win and a tilt at first-place Princeton, hoping to avoid their first loss. With all of that in mind, I spoke with Columbia coach Jim Engles this week to talk about the weekend ahead and the adjustments the team has made and still needs to make this season.
Ivy Hoops Online: With Penn winless and Princeton undefeated, how hard is it to keep the players from overlooking Penn and just focusing on the Saturday game?
Jim Engles: That’s a normal reaction, but Penn’s a really good team. Our schedule’s been relatively easier compared to everyone else’s because of the number of games we’ve played at home and theirs has been relatively challenging. They played Princeton twice. They’ve been on the road. So I think in this league, you look at the records but some teams start 0-6 and are able to reel off a bunch of wins in a row. Some teams start 6-0 and end up hitting a tough spot because of the way the schedule falls out. There’s still a lot of things I’m trying to learn – a lot of nuances within the league that being a first-year coach back again are starting to come back to me that I have to realize. They’re 0-6 but they’re not an 0-6 team, so we’ll take them seriously.
IHO: You inherited a team that was almost exclusively playing man last year, but you have them mostly playing zone. How much of an adjustment has that been for them and how is that paying off so far?
Engles: It’s definitely been a learning process for all of us since I’m not really a zone coach, so there’s a lot of things that are going on that I’m still learning. The team has really embraced it. We went from one of the worst [defenses] in nonconference, comparing your nonconference defense to your conference defense we have the third-best turnaround. We’ve obviously embraced a lot of the things we’re trying to do, I still think we can get a lot better at it because this is all new for everybody and there’s definitely little things we’re trying to do to ensure teams can’t pick on us in certain ways, but I think it’s helped the two main things we wanted it to help. We weren’t creating any turnovers to start the season, now I think we’re in the top 20 (nationwide) and rebounding wise it’s really helped our defensive rebounding. Those are the two main things we wanted to address that have been addressed, now it’s the little things that need to be tightened up.
IHO: You guys have been the best in the league at defending two-pointers but the worst in the league at defending threes – how are you going to stop Princeton?
Engles: That’s something that we’re trying to work on now. It’s something we noticed we have to stop, we have to stop the number of three-point shots teams are taking against us. Playing zone, you’re going to give up threes but we have to get it down a little bit. That’s stuff we’re working on with the guys right now, just some minor rotational adjustments.
IHO: Have you had any thought to putting Jake (Killingsworth) back in the starting lineup or do you like him in the sixth man role?
Engles: It’s all dictated by what’s going on with the guys. We’ve had some guys who haven’t been feeling well, so there’s a lot of things we’re trying to work through in practice right now so we’ll see what kind of lineup we’ll have on Friday.
Responding to a question from the Columbia Spectator later in the interview, Engles also expressed some concerns about playing on the road for the first time, and in general. He brought up studies that NBA teams have done on sleep and how essential it is for athletes to be successful, and how hard that elusive sleep is to get on the road when you’re sleeping in an unfamiliar bed or on a bus. Engles also mentioned the mental wear and tear of playing on the road, especially for athletes who have to keep up with their schoolwork. Of course, there are the general facts about playing on the road as well:
“There’s a mental toughness aspect to playing on the road too, you have to control the game in different ways. They’re used to playing on their own court, they’re used to their rims, they practice there every day. You have to communicate better, you have to be sharper, you have to raise the level of your intensity to take away the advantages other teams have.”
For a team that already struggles to put games away and relies so much on the contribution of both freshmen (Mike Smith, Killingsworth) and players who had never been relied on as much as they have been recently (Quinton Adlesh, Nate Hickman), the “Killer Ps” weekend will be quite the test for the Lions.
In a season with such a wide range of expectations, nothing would be a big surprise in terms of this weekend’s results. They could falter under the pressure of expectations and two of the toughest road environments in the league, or they could pass each test with flying colors as the youngsters continue to put in huge contributions – or any result in between. You’re lying if you know exactly how the Lions will adapt to the road environment this weekend.