Finding Hope for Men’s Basketball in a Difficult Season

Talented young players like Maka Ellis, because of their inexperience are amongst the ones with the most to prove over these last six games. (Ben Goldsmith)

Talented young players like Maka Ellis, because of their inexperience are amongst the ones with the most to prove over these last six games. (Ben Goldsmith)

Now past the midway point of what has remained a brutally unlucky Ivy League season, men’s basketball is searching for answers. The Lions (6-16, 1-7 Ivy) have lost six games in a row and cannot find a friendly bounce, losing games by one, two, two, two, and six points during Ivy play alone.

Despite the disheartening stretch of poor play and bad luck, there remain reasons to be optimistic about head coach Jim Engles’ young squad. While the basketball gods aren’t smiling on Columbia just yet, let’s take a look at five things that still provide some hope for the Lions.

Point Differential

What Columbia’s in-conference record doesn’t show is just how competitive this team has been as of late. The Lions’ average margin of defeat in Ivy play is just under 7 points; take away their loss at Dartmouth on a back-to-back after a triple-overtime game and that margin drops to just over 4 points per contest.

While certainly a better team would have won some or many of those close games, sample size should eventually push the team’s record in matches decided by five points or less more towards the mean.

Engles emphasized growth and teaching opportunities when considering the team’s record in tight finishes. “I think it’s been a great learning experience for the guys,” he said. “That’s something we’ve really talked about in practice, stuff that we can do during games that will help us at the end of games.”

Gabe Stefanini

Mike Smith’s meniscus tear in mid-December was a harsh blow for a Lions team already starved for perimeter ball-handling. The star junior guard had been the lifeblood of Columbia basketball in recent seasons. Smith led the team in points, assists, and steals as a sophomore and was doing the same throughout the team’s first eight non-conference games this season before going down.
The team needed a creator, and in stepped Stefanini. The sophomore combo guard from Bologna, Italy, has been a revelation so far, leading the team in assists and steals and ranking second only to senior sharpshooter Quinton Adlesh in points scored since Smith’s injury.

Stefanini is not just Columbia’s best player right now—he might be one of the best in the entire Ivy League. He leads all Ivy players in assists per game and steals per game and hits a cool 41 percent from three-point range. He is the only player in the league to clear 1.5 steals, 1.5 three-pointers made, and 3.5 assists per game.

Solidly built at 6-foot-3, 198 pounds, Stefanini is regularly tasked with guarding the opposing team’s lead ball-handler. He’s acquitted himself admirably on defense, not only shutting down the point of attack but actively raiding passing lanes all game long and snagging rebounds in traffic after missed shots.

Stefanini’s constant energy is a crucial part of why the Lions have rarely been blown out so far. Even though he may lack the pure off-the-bounce scoring punch of Smith, his motor and well-rounded game always keep Columbia in the mix.

Three-point Shooting

Stefanini is far from Columbia’s only option beyond the arc. The Lions boast five marksmen in their regular rotation: Stefanini, Adlesh, senior Peter Barba, junior Jake Killingsworth, and first-year Maka Ellis.

Adlesh and Barba have been particularly deadly this season: Adlesh sits at 41 percent from three after leading the Ivy League last season at 44.2 percent; Barba, who has only received spotty minutes over his career, is hitting 51.5 percent of his shots from deep through the 20 games he has appeared in.

The issue with the Lions’ three-point bombing is that they aren’t doing more of it. The team is tied for fourth in the league in three-point efficiency, hitting 36 percent, but is second-to-last in field goal percentage on two-point shots.

The statistics indicate a team that’s not good at scoring inside, and thus shouldn’t be forcing the ball down low, but the Lions rank sixth out of eight Ivy League teams in percentage of field goal attempts from three. They need to reverse that trend. Columbia is small and unathletic, yes, but three is worth more than two and sometimes a hot shooting night from beyond the arc can mask a lot of flaws.

Perimeter Defense

While Columbia’s statistics don’t do its defense much justice—the team ranks second to last in adjusted defensive efficiency according to kenpom.com—in reality the guards and wings have done admirable jobs on the perimeter as of late. It starts with Stefanini, as previously mentioned, but Barba, Killingsworth, and sophomore Tai Bibbs have all been quite solid themselves.

All three wings have the foot speed and length to contain drives at the point of attack. They also have the awareness to know when and where to help, a must given the Lions’ lack of size.

Engles has taken to having his players switch screens religiously, making these interchangeable, athletic wings all the more important in maintaining a fluid but strong defensive unit. Columbia will likely continue to have trouble guarding the rim—it ranks in the 27th percentile among qualifying Division I teams in average player height—but the perimeter will remain a battlefield.

Evaluation Time

At the very least, having so many young players and a long season gives Engles plenty of time to assess how best to use each player both now and in the future. Of his current preferred nine-man rotation, all but two—Adlesh and Barba—will return next year.

Two sophomores—Bibbs and forward Randy Brumant—and two first-years—Ellis and forward Ike Nweke—come to mind immediately as those with the most to prove over these final six games.

The fit with Bibbs and Brumant is tricky. Both are among the three or four most athletic players on the team, yet neither seem completely comfortable on offense. Each struggles with positionality and shotmaking—not big enough to play a position up, not skilled enough to play down. If they start scoring consistently, they could clockbig minutes in a hurry; if not, they will remain in stasis.

For the first-years, Ellis, a natural-born scorer, must show he can contribute without putting the ball in the basket; Nweke, built like a slightly smaller version of Zion Williamson, must show he can be an effective defender after collecting just one block and three steals so far this season.

Engles preached patience and progress when discussing the team’s youth. “They’re at the time of year where the freshman moniker goes away and you become almost a sophomore,” he said. “But they’re still learning.”

SportsZach Miller