After a thrilling Senior Night victory over Penn to keep their Ivy Tournament hopes alive, we sat down with Columbia head coach Jim Engles during his weekly media availability to ask him what he knows about the Ivy’s tiebreakers, Columbia’s road difficulties and more.
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?
That familiar feeling was back again.
Like when Yale came back from 21 down in the second half against the Lions in 2012, the “Cannady Collapse” against Princeton last year, the entire 2013 Ivy run, and in half of the Lions’ home Ivy games already this year, a great first half was being wasted by a second-half meltdown. But like last Saturday night’s win over Harvard, the Lions steadied their nerve down the stretch and move solidly into third as their schedule turns from friendly confines to other, above-ground Ivy gyms.
At first, the game was sloppy. Then it became a rout.
Then came a furious comeback followed by something still more unexpected.
Saturday night’s Harvard-Columbia game at Levien Gym was setting up to be the stereotypical season-crushing loss we’ve seen from the Lions over and over again the past few seasons. With the Lions possessing the ball and a three-point lead with time running down, freshman point guard Mike Smith drove to the basket and missed. Jeff Coby saved the rebound to Luke Petrasek with nine seconds left, leading to him dribbling out the clock for a Lions victory heaving a 28-foot three-pointer because the shot clock was inexplicably showing two seconds. His miss was rebounded by Siyani Chambers, who put up a good look at a three-pointer to send the game to overtime. The predictable result would have been the three dropping through the net and a stunned Columbia team folding in overtime.
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.
Now it’s November and the leaders behind that run are gone: Kyle Smith to San Francisco, Maodo Lo and Alex Rosenberg to overseas contracts, Grant Mullins to Cal, and Isaac Cohen to the working world. So if everyone hits their 99th percentile performance in Morningside Heights this season, what can we expect? A group whose most experienced players are bigs and a coach who promises to run at a breakneck pace (at least compared to Kyle Smith’s) is a recipe for either the greatest incarnation of Seven Seconds or Less ever, or at least the most hilarious one. We do not know what Columbia’s lineup will look like. We do not know which freshmen will be able to contribute starting Friday at Stony Brook. What we do know is if everything goes according to plan, Columbia is going to win the Ivy title in the most ridiculous way possible.
IHO’s Sam Tydings caught up with first-year Columbia head coach Jim Engles, who took over the Lions’ program in April after eight years as head coach at NJIT, ironically after Columbia defeated NJIT en route to the 2016 CIT title. Engles discussed 2016-17 team leaders, what pace he wants the Lions to play at and why he’s not talking about winning with his players at the moment:
I have spoken, written, and typed many words about Columbia sporting events since I first stepped on campus and tonight I used a word to describe the experience that I had not used before: fun. Tonight’s environment in Levien felt more like an Ivy clincher than the championship game of a fourth-tier, mid-major only, buy-your-home-court-advantage tournament with teams selected in part by San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates. It was the first postseason tournament victory for the Ivy League in more than 40 years but more importantly than that, it was a happy ending to many eras.
If you had told Kyle Smith over the summer that Columbia would set their high-water mark in Ivy wins during his tenure and the Ivy title would be clinched on Levien Gymnasium’s sub-sea level court, he would have been elated.
Even if you had told him that was a trick question, it was hard to imagine even nine months ago that this would be the Lions team that won 10 Ivy games for the second time since Ronald Reagan took office, title or no. At various points in the last year, there was a distinct possibility that none of Smith’s four seniors (Isaac Cohen, Maodo Lo, Grant Mullins and Alex Rosenberg) would take the floor for him ever again. Despite the hardships suffered as individuals and the fact that Yale and Princeton were on their schedule four times this season, Columbia is going back to the postseason for the second time in three years. Kyle Smith believes it was this mismashed class of 2016 that turned the tide of the program from mediocrity to one that is on the rise and can ascend to a title in the near future, even without these players being a part of it. This is the story of how it all came together despite nearly falling apart.
With 90 seconds left in Saturday night’s Columbia vs. Princeton game, I was sure I was going to write about how Maodo Lo took over the game and held off a charging Princeton squad, or how the Lions were able to dominate the Tigers defensively even with their small lineups. With two minutes left in overtime, I was sure I was going to write about how even after blowing a late lead in typical Columbia fashion, Grant Mullins willed his fellow seniors to victory with his performance on both ends of the floor in overtime. Safe to say those articles will be written as soon as I put on one of my Bills Super Bowl Champion t-shirts while listening to Detox. Instead, this is an article about coming back after the buzzer sounds.