The rundown on Columbia men’s basketball

A respectable .500 winning percentage in the Ivy League, buoyed overall by solid nonconference wins. A close game at Harvard in early March, in the thick of the title race. Yale, conference champions, with Harvard the runner-up and Columbia not far behind. Sound plausible?

It was more than plausible in 1901-02, the Ivy League’s first basketball season, which began shortly after Harvard topped Yale for the year’s football title (a “fitting climax to a season of surprizes,” as the Daily Princetonian put it). Only 10 years after James Naismith cast a ball into the first stationary peach basket, Columbia began its varsity intercollegiate basketball competition. The Lions are still going strong even after the addition of three “new” teams to the conference since its inception.

Going into year 119, here’s everything you need to know about the Columbia Lions men’s basketball team heading into the season.

The Return

Shout it from the rooftops: Mike Smith is back. The senior guard missed the final 16 games of the 2018-19 season after suffering a torn meniscus, but he’s back to full strength and projected to start the season opener. Smith, when healthy, is unquestionably the Lions’ best player. He’s a dynamic guard who was on pace to average career-bests in assists and steals last season before getting injured. Smith has scored in double figures in 46 games, double that of the Lions’ next-highest current player, and has 20 20-plus point games in his career. Columbia is unquestionably a better team with Smith back on the court.

He’s back at the perfect time, too, since…

The Injury

… to Columbia’s second-best player, Gabriel Stefanini, has set the Italian guard out indefinitely (most reports have set a 3-5 month timeline) with a foot injury. That is, to use a technical term, not good at all for the Lions. Stefanini was a revelation last season. He led the Ivy league in assists with 4.1 per game, scored nearly 14 points per game while shooting 42% from three and truly carrying the offense after Smith want down. Stefanini became the first player in the program’s history to record a 20-point, 10-assist game, performing the feat in an overtime 79-77 win at Penn.

His presence will be sorely missed, especially considering the lack of depth among…

The Seniors

… who now lack senior Patrick Tapé, who has decided to sit out the year and transfer after graduating in the spring, per WatchStadium’s Jeff Goodman. That’s a massive loss for the Lions, who now have only one player taller than 6’8. Tapé was an honorable mention for the All-Ivy League team last year, scoring 11.3 points per game and hauling in a team-high 5.9 boards per contest. He’ll be missed primarily for his paint protection, however, where he played stout defense every game and accounted for nearly half of the Lions’ blocked shots.

The other two seniors on the roster are Smith and Jake Killingsworth, both of whom will start. Killingsworth, who went to the same high school as some guy named Tom Brady, started 22 of 28 games last season. The senior offers consistent shooting and floor-spacing—39.5% from three last year—as well as above-average passing for a small forward (while technically a guard, he’ll start at the 3 this year). Killingsworth is a solid if unexceptional player across the board, but he offers what so few Lions can: experience.

The Lions will need that, because with Tape and Stefanini gone a major burden will fall on…

The Juniors

… because according to Columbia’s projected starters for game one, junior guard Tai Bibbs is in line to supplant the departed Quinton Adlesh (now a graduate transfer at USC) as the second junior in the starting five. Bibbs offers a very different skillset to what Adlesh supplied last season. Whereas Adlesh hit a team-best 70 three-pointers at a 37% clip, Bibbs shot just 14-for-58 (24%) from beyond the arc last season and 32% from the field as a whole. He’s a lengthy defender, however, and Lions personnel, confirmed by the eye test, have raved about Bibbs’ athleticism for years. Nominally paired with Smith in the backcourt, his defense will be all-important.

Two other juniors figure to earn serious minutes. Forward Randy Brumant grew into his own last season, starting 19 games and playing all 28 while inhaling 4.8 rebounds per game. He’s one of Columbia’s more athletic (and now tallest) players, and he could become a serious threat if he expands his range after shooting just 23% from deep last season. Mike Smith needs all the driving space he can get, and he won’t get much floor spacing from the other important junior. Joseph Smoyer sat out the 2018-19 season after transferring from Portland State, but the 6’11 big man is expected to have an immediate impact off the bench, especially with Tapé gone. He’ll be tasked with picking up the rebounding and rim protection void left.

Jake Klores and Luke Bolster (who saw the court for 90 seconds in the season opener) have seen minimal action through their first two years at Columbia, but could be primed for an uptick in minutes due to their relative experience and Columbia’s lack of depth among the seniors and …

The Sophomores

… of whom there are exactly three on the roster, and one, Ben Milstein, saw action in just two games last year.

That leaves Maka Ellis and Ike Nweke to play major minutes. Ellis hit the game-winning layup in the big overtime win at Penn, and rounded into form in the latter half of the season. He scored just 5.6 points per game but shot 41% from deep, and he’ll have the opportunity to increase his scoring volume this year. Ellis might be the first man off the bench this season, though he could challenge Bibbs for the starting shooting guard spot with some hot shooting early.Nweke started out hot with Tapé sidelined by injury, which bodes well for a full season without Tapé. The forward starred in the season opener against Marist before cooling down slightly throughout the season. Nweke will likely start at center to begin the year, forming an athletic-if-foul-happy frontcourt pairing with Randy Brumant. With 6’8 first-year Emmanuel Onuama waiting in the wings behind Smoyer, Nweke can cement himself at center for more than the first few weeks this year.

Speaking of Onuama…

The First-Years

… are numerous. A strong recruiting class saw five new players commit to Morningside heights: Onuama, guard Jack Forrest (who went to Lower Merion high school, of Kobe Bryant fame), Asa Shannon, Cameron Shockley-Okeke, and Eddie Turner III.

It’s hard to say how much of an impact the freshman class will make this season. Columbia’s depth up front is scant enough that Onuama could be pushed into a large role as the season progresses. The wing depth is suspect enough, too, especially if Bibbs and Ellis struggle, and Forrest immediately played big, crunch-time minutes in the opener.

The Prospectus

The Lions are down two expected starters for the long run. Depth and Ivy League experience are shorter than the team would like. The team as a whole is shorter than coach Jim Engles might like. How can Columbia win and make it to the conference tournament in a deep Ivy League?

First and foremost, Mike Smith must lead the way and carry an immense burden offensively. With Stefanini out and Bibbs in the starting lineup for the departed Adlesh, Smith is essentially the lone starter who can reliably create his own shot. As a sophomore, he averaged 17.6 points per game, second in the conference. He’ll most likely have to do more than that this season. Smith also led the Ivy League in assists in 2017-18 with 4.6; a career-high in dimes, too, would be a great relief to the Lions’ offense.

To lead the league in assists, Smith will be reliant on the perimeter shooting of the supporting cast. As a team, Columbia shot a respectable 36% from deep last season. The returning players, however, combined to shoot 33% from deep. That 3% difference will be impactful if it persists; Bibbs and Brumant must make strides from deep, while Ellis and Killingsworth need to continue their strong shooting.

Columbia outscored and outshot opponents last season by a slim margin, but it will need to muster sufficient rim protection to do so again. Tapé’s departure leaves an undeniable hole in the middle, and Nweke and Smoyer will have no shortage of challenges in trying to fill it perfectly. The perimeter defense, with Smith, Bibbs, and Brumant leading the way, should be strong once again.

Shockingly, these very issues were spotlighted in…

The Opener

… where Columbia dropped a last-second heartbreaker to Lafayette, 65-63, after Jack Forrest’s last-second three clanged out and away. The close game marks another close loss for the Lions, who finished 6-10 last season in games decided by four points or fewer.

To start the season off, 10 notes for a 10-rebound discrepancy (37-27) in favor of Lafayette…

  1. Smith and more Mr. Smith. Point guard Mike Smith scored a game-high 22 points on 8-for-19 shooting, carrying the offense on his shoulders. He drew seven fouls and converted his customary acrobatic layups. To no one’s surprise, Smith played nearly the entire game, sitting for just 90 seconds in the middle of the first half for Luke Bolster. That will be the case throughout the season, because Columbia’s bench scoring just isn’t there yet.
  2. Lafayette outscored Columbia 32-15 in bench points and lead for 32:19 to Columbia’s scant 4:20, although the game was close throughout. The Lions’ bench shot just 6-for-16 (37%) from the field and failed to hit a single three-pointer. Maka Ellis, first off the bench as the sixth man, played well, going 4-for-6, including the game-tying bucket with 48 seconds left, his third field goal in the final 12:11. Joseph Smoyer showed some firepower offensively (more about him anon). Two first years saw playing time: Jack Forrest struggled in a consequential role and Cameron Shockley-Okeke grabbed a rebound in four minutes on the floor.
  3. Forrest flashed the formations of an important rotation piece, but showed some jitters in his first college game as well. He finished with two points (from the line), an 0-for-5 shooting line and an 0-for-3 slash from deep. His confidence should be restored with coach Jim Engles’s confidence in him, however, as Forrest immediately earned a bench-high 14:26 of action. He missed the tough final shot, but having the confidence to take it and (presumably) learn from it is a plus. Columbia’s wing depth should give Forrest plenty of opportunities this season.
  4. Smoyer is the other important piece off the bench, and he was up and down in what turned out to be just nine minutes. Offensively, he had a strong and-one and pulled down two offensive rebounds. Defensively, however, he showed some rust incurred from a year out due to transferring from Portland State. Columbia will need him to be more pliant, more comfortable extending his impressive size beyond the low block and more set in defending in the paint. With Tapé gone, Smoyer constitutes too much of Columbia’s rim protection for him to falter.
  5. The Lions did play some small-ball lineups with Randy Brumant at center, though that may have been in response to some early (and subsequently well-avoided) foul trouble for Nweke. Those will be something to watch going forward. If they can hang defensively with what the opposition throws their way, those small-ball lineups have the potential to space the floor for Smith better than any combination including Smoyer and Nweke.
  6. Brumant three-point shooting tracker: 1-for-2, his only shot attempts of the game. This may be the single-most important subtle development of the season. Brumant can really play, and if he can adapt his game to best suit the team’s needs Columbia will be a markedly better team for it.
  7. As a whole, Columbia shot just 5-for-19 from beyond the arc (26%) and a damning 0-for-7 from three in the second half. That’s most unlikely to continue, which is good for Columbia, because it’s extremely difficult to win games without hitting a single trey in the second half. Considering Columbia’s propensity for close games, a poor showing in either half is untenable.
  8. The offensive scheme as a whole looked fairly sharp for a season opener. Coach Engles is just 1-3 in season openers, but he coached a good game this time around. Columbia ran the ball through the high post too much for my liking in the first half (Engles and his sets fondly recall the days of star big men Luke Petrasek and Lukas Meisner), but the offense improved in the second half as Mike Smith took over. Though the team’s 63 points fell 10 points below last season’s average, for a season-opener with such a drastically new lineup—three new starters from the end of last season—it wasn’t a poor effort by any means.
  9. Watching Smoyer, I was reminded of former Columbia recruit Jaron Faulds, a highly touted prospect who struggled in his first year in Morningside Heights and transferred to Michigan. Faulds and wing Myles Hanson (Xavier) both transferred after their first years, and only now—with Tapé gone and the wing depth at the 3 and 4 lacking—does Columbia feel their absences. Faulds didn’t touch the court in Michigan’s win over Appalachian State, while Hanson recorded minimal counting stats in two minutes of Xavier’s season-opening win.
  10. Columbia’s next game is at Wake Forest, which opens its season against Boston College on November 6. The game, called for 2 p.m., is available on the ACC Network (ESPN). Columbia’s first home game is Wednesday, against Binghamton, who fell to Cornell in its season opener.

A previous version of this story inaccurately stated Maka Ellis’s second-half contribution.