X's and O's: Takeaways from Columbia's weekend road-trip

Gabe Stefanini acts as the focal point in the new-look Lions offense, driving some of the team’s most effective plays such as the corner pick-and-roll. (Photo: Ben Goldsmith)

Gabe Stefanini acts as the focal point in the new-look Lions offense, driving some of the team’s most effective plays such as the corner pick-and-roll. (Photo: Ben Goldsmith)

“All happy teams are alike; each unhappy team is unhappy in its own way” (Small Forward Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

For a Columbia team that’s mostly suffered tough loss after tough loss, a weekend road split has to be a positive outcome. In a season where few bounces have gone Columbia’s way, the Lions engineered enough overtime luck to walk out of the famed Penn Palestra with a 79-77 win before running out of good fortune in a disheartening 79-61 loss at Princeton.

Here are two defensive points—taken from the Lions’ away games this past weekend—to keep an eye on, as well as a play spotlight (otherwise known as “let’s get Gabe the ball and let him go to work”).

No Sir, Brodeur

Columbia’s low-post defense against Penn star A.J. Brodeur was very effective. In this season’s first meeting between the two schools, a 72-70 Penn win at Levien, Brodeur picked apart the Lions for 24 points on 8-12 shooting and 8 free throws. His low-post polish and high-low handling eviscerated the foul-happy Patrick Tapé and overmatched Ike Nweke.

On Friday night, however, Columbia more than rose to the occasion. Brodeur finished with just 13 points on 5-14 shooting, managing just 1 free throw. While the Penn forward hit two three-pointers, Columbia played a more concentrated, preventative defense to limit Brodeur’s time and space to put the ball on the floor both at the top of the key and down low. It wasn’t quite Ben Simmons-sagging off defense, but without the option to create for himself from the perimeter, Brodeur was forced to build his house on the low block.   

There, Columbia consistently deployed a help defender to limit Brodeur’s effectiveness in the post. The help principally arrived on the weak side, intended either to surprise Brodeur for the steal or force the ball out of his hands while being pushed towards staunch Patrick Tape defense. The Penn junior did respond with 7 assists, but Tapé and Quinton Adlesh notched 3 steals apiece in large part due to the help down low.

In the waning seconds of overtime, Pete Barba netted Columbia two crucial points with good help defense, a microcosm of the team’s positive game-long trend. He collapsed on a Penn drive and corralled the loose ball for a clear swat, scoop, and score. Who said help defense doesn’t get you any accolades?

Cut Action: Cut it out

In 2019, spacing in basketball is more in vogue than ever. It creates wider driving lanes, clearer passing lanes, and kinder bowling lanes. Ok, maybe not the latter, but that’s about the only thing spacing doesn’t seem to do these days.

With Princeton big man Richmond Aririguzoh hampered by foul trouble, the Tigers hit 12 threes in their Saturday win, well above their 7.7 per game on the year. Ryan Schweiger drained all 4 of his three-point attempts, while Ethan Wright added 3 treys of his own.  Columbia has allowed 8.8 three-pointers per game this season, but when shots fall in the face of good defense, there’s little to be done.

More problematic was the offball movement Columbia struggled to defend throughout the weekend. Princeton hammered Columbia in the wider driving lanes created by their spacing. But Penn also found success on backdoor cuts despite a more interior-focused offense. Devon Goodman and Michael Wang each found the scoreboard on backdoor cuts. Jake Silpe, always a hard cutter, wreaked havoc on the defense by repeatedly slipping high screens and making a beeline for the basket.

Taking care of the smaller things may serve only to preserve (Lion) pride at this point, but defensive awareness is an invaluable attribute for any team. For a young, developing unit, these are teaching moments from which the Lions can hone this skill.

Play Spotlight: Corner Pick & Roll

The Lions ran this play to great effect against Penn, but struggled the next night against a Princeton team well-versed in its program’s own offensive concepts.

(Credit: NBA Princeton Offense Playbook)

(Credit: NBA Princeton Offense Playbook)

Here, Gabe Stefanini is 1, Quinton Adlesh is 3, and Patrick Tapé is 5. Columbia occasionally disguises an Adlesh-Tape wing pick-and-roll as leading into this action, but its primary usage is for the Stefanini-Tape pick-and-roll. If Adlesh doesn’t receive the ball on his cut, he simply clears out to the opposite corner to draw the defense away from the main action.

Once isolated in the corner, this becomes a simple pick-and-roll. The advantages of this play are the same as any pick-and-roll in which Gabe is the primary ball handler. If Stefanini doesn’t pass to Tapé, he’ll drive, stop for a turnaround jumper in the paint, or kick it out to restart.

This play was particularly effective against Penn, with all three players involved in scoring off the action. It was so successful that Columbia ran it to tie up the game at 72 with 30 seconds left in regulation. While Princeton’s length and size on the perimeter stifled things in the second game of the weekend, fans should expect this to be a reliable design for the Lions through the remainder of the season.

All happy teams are alike in victory. Columbia hasn’t spent much time in the win column this season, but as far as unhappy teams go, it’s not all bad. Continuing to improve on the small things and developing as a unit will make Columbia one of those many happy, winning teams.

SportsJosiah Cohen