No one ever said Columbia’s road trip, down to Virginia and back up to St. John’s, was going to be easy.
It wasn’t.Columbia dropped both games by double digits, falling 60-42 to top-10 ranked Virginia and 82-63 loss to St. John’s at Carnesecca Arena in Queens. With the two losses, the Lions sit 1-4 and one floor above the cellar. The team’s struggles in out-of-conference games continue. While they’ve gone 10-18 in Ivy League play over the past two seasons, a consistent 5-9 in each, the Lions are just 9-23 in nonconference games.
Part of the problem is Columbia’s long-tenured struggles on the road. In the two-plus seasons timeframe, the Lions are an even 12-12 at home and a staggering 5-27 on the road (including an eye-popping 1-14 in 2017-18). Scheduling road games at opponents like Virginia, St. John’s, and Villanova certainly doesn’t help. The more common culprit, however, has been Columbia’s inability to eke out close wins. More than half of Columbia’s losses over the last two-plus seasons have been between one and six points. Columbia is just 7-23 in games decided by that margin.
That wasn’t the case against Virginia or St. John’s. Columbia scored just 17 points in the first half against the defending national champions, though it did finish with 42 points, so far the season-high scoring total allowed by the Cavaliers. That defensive game was quickly overshadowed by a high-scoring showdown against St. John’s, where Columbia found itself in a 49-27 hole at halftime, just 11 points shy of Virginia’s final tally. The Virginia game was certainly one in which Columbia had little hope of overcoming its underdog (underlion?) status. St. John’s has topped the Lions in 14 consecutive contests, dating back to the 1979-80 season. In this, the fourteenth win, St. John’s routed Columbia and exposed the flaws that have plagued the team all season long.
Columbia’s defense has generally been strong, allowing 67 points per game, which is right in the middle of the Ivy League pack. The offense, however, is averaging just 61.2 points per game, which is an Ivy League-low (three points behind the next-lowest team, Princeton, which has had a surprisingly lethargic start to the season).
Without the injured Gabe Stefanini, Columbia’s offense has consisted of Mike Smith, Mike Smith, and a little more Mike Smith. Columbia’s star has shouldered an immense burden on both sides of the floor. Smith has played nearly 190 of 200 possible minutes; the only other player averaging more than 27 minutes per game is Jake Killingsworth. Smith has scored precisely 20 points per game and dished out exactly 5 assists per contest (an Ivy League high). He also grabbed a career-high nine rebounds against St. John’s. Yet no other player is averaging more than nine points per game.
Killingsworth, the other senior starter, is the only Lion with double-digit three-pointers this season (10, on soon-to-improve 31% shooting). His shooting percentage is right in line with what Columbia shot against Virginia and St. John’s (16-51, 31%) and with what Columbia is has shot during the season (38-121, 31%).
Tai Bibbs and Randy Brumant, two junior starters whose shooting range I’ve consistently highlighted as being crucial to Columbia’s fortunes, have hit a three-pointer in the same game exactly one time: the win over Binghamton. Their combined shooting percentage (32% on 10-32 FGA) is exactly in line with Columbia’s average, but they have not been successful in tandem. Similarly, key bench scorers Maka Ellis and Jack Forrest (both comfortably averaging more than 20 minutes per game) have not hit threes in the same game, though Ellis did miss two contests. Forrest is leading the team with 40% shooting from deep, including the stellar 4-4 effort against Binghamton, but the first-year has hit only two field goals inside the arc. Ellis, meanwhile, is just 2-12 from deep after a rough 1-8 outing against St. John’s, but is shooting 41% inside the arc.
Can a small-ball lineup supplant the unchanged starting lineup and inflate those shooting numbers? Joseph Smoyer, Columbia’s lone traditional center, has struggled in relief of Ike Nweke off the bench, while Nweke has played well but is not a floor-spacer. Randy Brumant, second on the team in rebounding, is perhaps Columbia’s ideal small-ball center offensively. A lineup of Smith, Forrest/Ellis, Bibbs, Killingsworth, and Brumant certainly has the potential to widen the floor. The team’s size and defense are more suspect, however, although the Lions have flashed stellar individual play on defense at occasional points throughout the season. Would such a lineup hold up in a physical Ivy League?
Nonconference play is a time to figure out such questions. Perhaps struggling against Virginia and St. John’s is a necessary step to figuring out an answer come Ivy League play.