Not-so-classic weekend for Columbia at Fordham

Can Columbia buy a win?

More importantly, can Columbia buy a stop?

In the first 10 games of last season, Columbia allowed just three teams — not even Villanova among them — to score 80-plus points. This year’s squad has thrice conceded opponent totals of at least four score and seven years ago. Seems about right for the last time the Lions won a game.

The team dropped three consecutive games at the Johnny Bach Classic at Fordham over the weekend. Kendale Hampton scored a career-best 32 points to lead Youngstown State to a 94-83 win in Columbia’s opener. FIU rode several double-doubles to an easy 98-87 win over Columbia on Saturday despite Gabe Stefanini’s 33 points. The denouement came Sunday, when Columbia snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in a 70-69 heartbreaker against host Fordham.

The loss to Fordham was particularly devastating. Mike Smith drained two free throws to put Columbia up 69-65 with 23 seconds to play. Ivan Raut — who hit Fordham’s first three of the game from the very same spot — drained a triple in the corner with 10 seconds left. Columbia coughed up the inbounds pass, the Rams played hot potato for a few frantic seconds, and freshman Jalen Cobb finished off a flawless Fordham tournament with a buzzer-beating floater.

Through 14 percent of the 2018-19 season, Columbia men’s basketball is winless. In 2017-18, the Lions started the year 1-10. Why has Columbia been terrible at the start of the season in two seasons under a returning coach?

That’s worth a whole article, but one cause that subtly rears its head is the team’s slow adjustment to life without talented stretch big men. The Lions lost Luke Petrasek to the G-League before the 2017-18 campaign and promptly, as noted above, dropped 10 of their first 11 games. The departure of Lukas Meisner preceded this year’s 0-4 start.

The Lions have primarily relied — more by design, I think, than by desperation — on a lineup with three guards (Smith, Stefanini, and senior Quinton Adlesh), one post player (Ike Nweke or Patrick Tape), and one tweener forward (Randy Brumant or Rodney Hunter). The three guards compensate for the lack of spacing by the interior and tweener players, with a pretty clear offense/defense split overall. The advantage of a stretch big like Petrasek or Meisner was the combination of offense and defense in one player. Last season’s Smith/Adlesh/Hunter/Meisner/Tape lineup offered better defense and comparable shooting to this season’s three-offense, two-defense lineup.

That’s not to say that the guards don’t play defense. They certainly do. Nweke will continue to benefit greatly from his playing time. Jake Killingsworth looked promising as a taller shooter in the loss to Fordham. But Columbia has lost games because it has not yet found a way to stop opposition shooting, especially beyond the arc. The Lions are allowing 86 points per game. While Columbia relaxes, as it were, in Morningside Heights, opponents are feasting from downtown to the tune of a 41.4 percent three-point percentage. The metaphor is questionable; the stats are not. That percentage must change.

Columbia has also suffered from a severe lack of simultaneous scoring quality — what is technically known as “guys doing well in games where other guys are also doing well.” Take, for example, Mike Smith and Gabe Stefanini, the only Lions averaging more than 10 points per game (19.0 and 14.5, respectively). Against Youngstown State, when Smith scored 31 points, Stefanini scored just five. In the loss against FIU, when Stefanini scored 33, Smith scored seven. That’s not the path to winning games. It’s also highly unlikely to continue to such an extreme. Adlesh has been consistent. Brumant has taken a massive leap forward from his freshman campaign. Even at 0-4, a repetition of last year’s 1-10 start is still unlikely.

So, can the Lions buy a win? Absolutely. They just need to hang onto the inbounds pass en route.

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