What can Columbia build on after another tough loss?

As the great Renaissance humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam said: “Damn, Columbia just can’t buy a win.”

Columbia fell 87-86 in double overtime to Delaware Sunday at Levien Gym, leaving the Lions a frustrating 1-5 and the only team in the Ivy League under .500 and still searching for answers. The talent is there. The wins are not.

After an exceedingly comfortable win over St. Joseph’s (Brooklyn) of Division III, the Lions fought back multiple times against the 7-2 Blue Hens. Mike Smith scored five points late in regulation to force overtime. Gabe Stefanini hit a huge three to force a second overtime. Columbia earned the chance to win the game by getting a tie-up with 1.9 seconds to play. But the inbounds set remained unchanged despite a Delaware timeout; a lob to Patrick Tape, not corralled, and an off-balance Stefanini jumper, not converted, closed the books on a good start to December. Conference play, obviously, is the key, but Columbia is yet to prove a formula that might prove effective therein.

The Lions have shown glimpses of such a formula. The team’s best lineup seems to have emerged: Mike Smith, Quinton Adlesh, Gabe Stefanini, Jake Killingsworth and Patrick Tape. That’s the lineup that got Columbia back into the game and the one that offers the best combination of shooting and defense. The team’s three best scorers, a capable tweener — Killingsworth is capable of more than his role in the first overtime, inbound and rebound — and the team’s best interior defender.

Smith has been absolutely electrifying this season. He scored 31 points in the latest loss and is averaging a career-best 18.3 points per game (a number somewhat scuppered by a restful 12-minute outing against St. Joseph’s). Smith’s explosiveness hasn’t been limited to the offensive end of the floor; the junior’s 2.3 steals per game are more than the output of his first two seasons combined (1.1 per game each). He’s the best player on the team without question; unfortunately, the questions surrounding the rest of the team diminishes his brilliance.

Adlesh has rounded into form. He scored 19 points on efficient shooting (7-for-11 from the field, 5-for-8 from three) in 38 minutes. The senior, it is apparent, wants to win this year. He’s starting to do his utmost on that front. Stefanini is still a little rusty but can build on his big shot in overtime. His is a crucial role, running the offense in the (few) minutes with Smith on the pine. With how close Columbia’s games have been all year, those accumulated few minutes matter a lot.

Three starters against Delaware (Ike Nweke, Rodney Hunter, Tai Bibbs) combined for all of two points. Nweke’s output is usually greater; he dealt with foul trouble all game. Like most young big men, he fouls and fouls and fouls. Nweke has generally been capable, but Columbia needs more out of its peripheral players. The five non-core lineup (as enumerated above) players who took the floor combined for a paltry nine points. The Ivy League is too deep, and athleticism too necessary in Mike Smith’s 34-plus minutes per game, for that to continue.

I am higher than most, I think, on Randy Brumant. The sophomore played perilously few minutes in his first year, stuck behind since-transferred Myles Hanson (Xavier), and his experience certainly shows. The more Brumant plays, the more his intangibles will catch up to his very positive tangible contributions. He’s an athletic player who should be able to spell Killingsworth or Adlesh for defensive minutes. He played inspired defense against Delaware’s Eric Carter on the low block at a crucial juncture in overtime before immediately being subbed out for Tape. Should Brumant develop a jumper, he will become an eminently usable player and a superior successor to Hunter. Peter Barba, who sank his lone shot attempt — a three-pointer — has untapped value.

What can Columbia do to start winning games? The Lions need to build on their positives, rather than expect them to multiply and develop organically. Columbia will win games when it tightens up its defensive discipline. The Lions are in no way overmatched to the point where falling asleep on a backdoor cut here or half-heartedly closing out on a three-pointer there doesn’t matter. The offense, powered by Smith, can compete with anyone. It just needs a little help from the peripheral players and the defense to make the formula fit.

It isn’t all so dire. Roar-ee, the Lions’ mascot, took a little break from his exhortation endeavors to rest up in the bleachers. A little kid came down the stairs, timidly, and tapped the lion on the shoulder. Hesitantly, he extended his hand for a high-five. Roar-ee complied, and waved the kid in for a hug. They hugged, and the boy raced back up the stairs grinning from ear to ear. It was a touching reminder that there’s a more human element to these games. Despite the tough loss, Erasmus would have been proud.