John already covered the story of Columbia’s blowout win over Cornell, but here are three more thoughts from Levien Gym:
1. Mike Smith showed a new side of himself. Smith drew the initial defensive assignment against Matt Morgan despite giving up three inches to the Ivy League’s top scorer. By face-guarding Morgan on the perimeter and matching him step-for-step off the ball, Smith held him to only two shot attempts in the first 10 minutes and forced several turnovers on passes in his direction.
Morgan got hot eventually, first from backdoor cuts and then by getting Smith in foul trouble to draw new assignments. He finished the first half with 16 points and the game with 20, plus four assists (and several potential others that went unfulfilled). But Smith’s early defense set the tone for the game, allowing the Lions to build an early lead they never relinquished.
2. …and Columbia hardly needed his offense. Smith is the linchpin of Columbia’s attack, and Jim Engles is reluctant to take him off the court, often playing his point guard all 40 minutes. But Smith went to the bench late in the first half Saturday, sitting the final 5:00 after a hard collision shook him up and earned his second foul. With Morgan heating up at the same time, that stretch could have been changed the game — but instead the Lions kept pace, scoring 11 points in nine possessions without their floor general to stretch their lead from 12 to 14.
Smith also sat much of the second-half garbage time, totaling a D-I season-low 25 minutes. His nine points and five assists were helpful, but five teammates scored in double figures, leading Columbia to 1.22 points per possession. Lukas Meisner hit four three-pointers en route to 19 points; Quinton Adlesh did the same to finish with 14, teaming with Kyle Castlin on handoff plays that have become their specialty. A fired-up Nate Hickman added 14 points, the last three coming on a 26-footer that hit nothing but net. “It was a good offensive confidence-builder for us,” Engles said.
— Ivy League Network (@IvyLeagueNet) January 21, 2018
The big question is, can the rest of Columbia’s lineup keep up this production against better defenses? The Lions have frequently resorted to Smith hero-ball against better competition — he took at least 20 shots in all four games against major-conference foes. But even if Columbia is doomed to struggle against good defenses, it will still win plenty of games in this year’s Ivy League if it keeps torching bad ones.
3. It’s getting late early for Cornell. The Big Red entered the season with realistic playoff hopes, but with an 0-3 record in Ivy League play, those odds are now very slim. After giving Penn a scare at The Palestra, Cornell has lost its last two games by a combined 63 points. Defense has been the primary culprit — the Big Red has leaked at least 88 points to five of its last six opponents, and its efficiency ranking on that end of the floor has fallen to 320th nationally per KenPom.
Not only did Cornell struggle to keep up on screens and handoffs — a problem area for much of the season — the Big Red also fell asleep on multiple possessions, leaving Lions wide open under the hoop for uncontested points. “We’ve got to have a little more effort next time,” Cornell coach Brian Earl said. “Defensively, we didn’t execute the way we wanted to, so we’ll try and tighten some things up for the next game.”
The offense, supposed to be Cornell’s strength, has been just as concerning. Morgan and Gettings are two of the league’s best playmakers, but when they struggle — as was the case in the opening minutes at Princeton last weekend and at Columbia Saturday — Cornell has no backup plan. Only two other rotation players have an offensive rating above 95, and they (Steven Julian and Terrence McBride) hardly ever shoot. Josh Warren has regressed after a promising rookie campaign, Jack Gordon’s shooting percentage has fallen in a bigger role, and none of the rookies is a scoring threat.
For the second straight year, injuries have been a significant factor. Troy Whiteside, a potential third banana on offense, hasn’t played all season. Wil Bathurst has been sidelined for a month, contributing to Cornell’s defensive issues.
Penn’s comeback last season — in which it recovered from an 0-6 start to sneak into the Ivy League Tournament — will give every team hope this year. But time is quickly running out, and Cornell’s weak spots have only worsened throughout the season. So while returning to Ithaca for the next two weeks will be a nice change of scenery, the Big Red needs a more fundamental transformation to compete. “I’m not looking forward to much right now,” Earl said. “It’ll be nice to get back [home], but we’ve got a lot of problems.”