Halftime: A closer look at Columbia's Friday night loss against Yale

Combo guard Gabe Stefanini (#15) takes on the primary ball-handling duties for a post-Mike Smith Columbia Lions offense (Photo: Ben Goldsmith, Logo: Chase Manze)

Combo guard Gabe Stefanini (#15) takes on the primary ball-handling duties for a post-Mike Smith Columbia Lions offense (Photo: Ben Goldsmith, Logo: Chase Manze)

Halftime is a series written by Editor-in-chief Ethan DeLehman that will be published every Wednesday. The series will break down one of Columbia men’s basketball’s two games each weekend as they close out the rest of the season.

Media members crowded the sideline this past Friday night as Columbia men’s basketball took on Yale, who currently sit atop the Ivy League standings. Levien Gymnasium was alive with that intangible quality that only exists at sporting events bound to be entertaining. The mad prattle of camera shutters, the pitter-patter boom of countless feet—belonging to fans of the Lions and Bulldogs alike—as they clanged against the plastic and metal of the stands. 

The Lions did not disappoint. 

Matched up with a team that features a dynamic roster full of athletic playmakers (as well as one of best players in the league in Miye Oni), the Light Blue came out with an intensity that kept the contest close through most of the first half. They played aggressive on defense, interrupted passing lanes, forced turnovers (Columbia had 11 steals on the day), and switched constantly. They held the Bulldogs, who came into the day averaging roughly 78 points a game, to just 70. 

Unfortunately, it was the Lions’ offense that proved to be their undoing. Stated simply by the box score, Columbia shot an unacceptable 33.3% from the field and 26.9% from deep. At several points in the game, they struggled to build offensive momentum, became caught up in a cycle of ineffective offensive schemes—particularly against a team as quick as Yale—and went several stretches of time without scoring. It was during these stretches that the Bulldogs executed dominant runs, usually accented by statement plays like the Oni dunk seen below.

The remainder of this piece breaks down a handful of offensive sequences executed by Columbia in order to evaluate intention and execution. The end goal of this is to try and determine what the Lions can improve on as they progress into the closing stretch of Ivy League play.

Sequence #1:

To begin, the above video captures Columbia’s first three offensive possessions from Friday’s game. In each, they run the same basic set-up: sophomore guard Gabe Stefanini—in his new capacity as point guard following Mike Smith’s injury earlier this season—dribbles up to just over half-court. At this point he pauses as junior center Patrick Tapé rotates and takes his position at the top of the key. As you can see over the development of these three possessions, the idea is sound. Tapé is a competent passer and, standing at six-foot-ten, has a full field of vision across the court, allowing him to pick out the open man. 

The issue in sets like this, which can be seen briefly in the first two possessions, is that they are dependent on constant movement. The most noteworthy offensive tendencies that the Lions’ displayed on Friday night was that they lingered around the perimeter. They rarely made cuts to the basket and when they did they often struggled to get separation from their defenders, leading to numerous heavily-contested shots. This would not necessarily be a bad thing if these drives and shots resulted in scoring opportunities i.e. free-throws. Presently, however, Columbia ranks dead-last in the Ivy League in free-throw attempts and makes, shooting 207-for-292 on the year, in comparison to Yale’s 284-for-405. At present, however, this leaves the Light Blue hesitant to drive, and having consistently inefficient scoring nights. (Against Yale, the Lions had a combined 43.81% True Shooting percentage, and a 38.64% effective field goal percentage).

“One of our faults, our weaknesses, is that we really haven’t been able to get to the line a lot. We’re really working on guys driving the ball to the rim, driving the ball to the rim,” head coach Jim Engles said in an interview conducted two days before the game.

This intention is visible in the repeated play-call. Once Tapé receives the ball in the high-post, he is at the optimal position to pass to a cutting teammate. On the first two possessions of the game, however, the Lions mishandle the execution, with the turnover and then the offensive foul. On the third go-around, Columbia executes the play perfectly. Stefanini passes the pass to Tapé, once again in the high-post, and immediately sets a quick screen for Adlesh who is roaming on the perimeter. Adlesh seizes the opportunity, runs through the space behind Stefanini, and Tapé sets up the easy bucket with a well-placed pass.

The Lions have the personnel and schemes to win games, but sequences like this show how sloppy play can derail a well-intended play-call.

Sequence #2:

The second sequence brings us to the near-end of the game. At this point Yale has made their mark offensively, scoring 61 points on a high-energy Lions defense. Columbia, still struggling to gain momentum, do what they do best: force a turnover and look for opportunities to score with a combination of slow drives into the paint and kick-out passes to potentially open shooters on the perimeter. A tendency on display in this first clip that was particularly evident while watching the game is this: for a team that forces a lot of scoring opportunities—the Lions lead the league in steals and are decidedly middle-of-the-pack when it comes to rebounding—they very rarely execute on the fast-break. 

Here, Maka Ellis’ extra efforts force the turnover, and Stefanini brings the ball up the court, slowing to a halt about five feet out from the 3-point line. This provides the Yale defenders with time to set their positions and try to read where the play is going. For a team previously known as high-tempo, the Lions now rank 157th out of 353 Division I teams for length of possession on offense. They’ve slowed their game down and lost some crucial scoring opportunities as a result. In conversation with coach Engles, he clarifies that this was a move made out of necessity. Having lost Mike Smith, the team’s star point-guard and fastest player, the coaching staff adjusted the teams style of play to suit Stefanini, who now handles the majority of the Lions’ ball-handling duties. 

“Honestly, we slowed it down,” Engles said. “With Gabe not being a straight point, we wanted to limit how quickly he was playing, to help him with his decision making.”

Here, despite the slow transition play, the tempo pays off, as Stefanini finds an open lane and kicks it out to Ellis. Ellis makes a similar cut into the paint, drawing a second Yale defender away from his assignment and giving Adlesh just enough room in the corner to grab the pass and sink the 3, sparking what would be a pivotal Columbia run.

On the second play highlighted, we see the same set-up as in the first video: Stefanini passes to Tapé in the high post. Crucial here is the movement of the other Lions players. Stefanini passes and immediately swings to his right. Peter Barba moves to his left, keeping his defender at bay and attempting to set a screen for a careening Adlesh. Adlesh swings around the top of the perimeter, forcing his defender to run head-first into the brick wall that is a Patrick Tapé screen. Adlesh achieves the separation he needs and drains his second straight shot from beyond the arc.

What makes this play so effective in contrast to some of the Lions’ other possessions is that, rather than remaining unengaged on offense and waiting for the ball-handler to initiate a sequence, every player here is moving from the start. Everyone remains in motions, sets screens when appropriate, and tries to set up an uninhibited scoring opportunity. Yale’s Swain still manages to get a hand into Adlesh’s face, but it hardly matters. 

The third play on display here, which culminates in another Adlesh 3-pointer, his ninth straight points in the game, is an even healthier reiteration of the previous play. Tapé knows his place and his skillset. He watches as Adlesh, Stefanini, and Killingsworth cut and pivot, waiting for a man to get open. Once again it is Adlesh. Once again he benefits from Tapé’s size and ability to halt the movement of opposing defenders. 3-for-3. 61-60, Yale, after it had just been 61-51. The Bullogs ultimately won the game 70-64.

Against arguably the best team in the league, the Lions showed why they’re dangerous. When they get going, when they execute their sets well, stay active on offense, and focus on productive passing, they have the personnel to make passes and hit shots. Here’s hoping Columbia focuses on these points heading into the next two days when they’ll face off against Princeton and Penn, both of whom are favored to win.

SportsEthan DeLehman