Columbia sits 1-2 after its first three games, notching its first win of the season in the home opener against Binghamton. A tumultuous preseason saw the team lose Gabe Stefanini (foot) for several months and Patrick Tapé (intention to graduate transfer) for the season. At Wake Forest, Columbia saw a late four-point lead dissipate and disappear for the team’s second consecutive 65-63 loss. In the home opener, however, the Lions comfortably topped Binghamton 75-63 for their first tally of the season in the win column.
What’s been driving Columbia’s competitive start to the season?
Mike Smith, as all expected, has been stellar. Without Stefanini complementing him in the backcourt, Smith has averaged 21.3 points and 5.6 assists per game, while sitting for just four minutes all season. Despite his stature, Smith has particularly excelled around the basket, scoring and distributing off drives. He has a knack for driving and circling back out around the trees, Chris Paul-like, and often finds Ike Nweke for a dump-off basket down low. His minutes might be a concern going forward, especially as he assumes an immense workload after tearing his meniscus last season. The potential return of Stefanini, as well as increased responsibility for a bench mob still up in the air, should ease the burden on Columbia’s star going forward.
“At the end of the day, that’s what basketball’s about, just playing hard, going out there and playing for your team,” Smith said after the win. “I think that’s one thing that I’ve learned, I wish I learned it earlier. You’re thankful for what you get when you get it, and I finally got it, so I’m happy for that.”
While Smith hasn’t been as effective from beyond the arc as the Lions might like, three-point shooting has proved an important difference-maker between winning and losing. Against Wake Forest, the Lions shot just 6-for-26 (23%) from beyond the arc; against Binghamton, Columbia poured in 11 three-pointers on 44% shooting. While Jake Killingsworth is the team’s primary long-distance artist, the contribution of players like Randy Brumant, Tai Bibbs, and Jack Forrest are a crucial element of Columbia’s floor spacing. Brumant is a very respectable 3-for-7 from deep through three games, while Bibbs hit his second trifecta of the season against Binghamton.
The clearest swing, however, has been Forrest. After missing a potential game-winner in the season opener at Lafayette and shooting 1-for-3 from deep at Wake Forest, the first-year guard went a sterling 4-for-4 in trifectas in the win. Forrest’s four finishes came in succession in the second half, enabling the Lions to pull away from the resolute Bearcats. When Maka Ellis is sidelined, Forrest is Columbia’s most important bench scorer, and he proved it in the win.
“I was really happy with the way Jack stepped up today,” coach Jim Engles said after the win. “He’s a big-time shooter, so it’s great for him. When he shoots like that we become a pretty dangerous team.”
Columbia needs to win its close games. While the Lions did a good job of steadily growing their lead against Binghamton, close wins have been hard to come by in the last few years, where Columbia is just 6-12 in games decided by four points or fewer. Two identical 65-63 losses early in the year haven’t helped that marker. The team must continue to improve on defense and ensure it takes care of the ball late in games. Although big man Joseph Smoyer is still finding his footing after sitting out a season due to transferring from Portland State, Brumant (who notched the Lions’ first double-double of the season in the win over Binghamton) and Nweke have looked stronger each game defending inside and cleaning the glass.
“We’re still really developing in a lot of different ways,” Engles said after the win.
Gabe Stefanini update: Coach Jim Engles said after the game that Stefanini, Columbia’s leading scorer last season, will meet with doctors this week and hopes to be out of his walking boot. Engles said that the team is “optimistic we can get him back in January.”
Highlight of the week: Smith pulled off a nifty move off an inbound in the second half, bouncing the ball off a Bearcat back before quickly scooping it up for score. Here’s Smith on how it happened:
“I looked at coach, to see if I got the thumbs up, since last year we did it and it worked. He looked at me and kind of said ‘yep,’ so I was like, all right, so I did it. Thank God I made it since I don’t know if he would’ve given the thumbs up again,” Smith laughed.
“[The Bearcat defender] was starting to move really far away,” Engles interjected with a chuckle, “I got a little worried there for a second. But it was a good play.”