Men’s Basketball And The Importance Of Tempo

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Luke Petrasek of the basketball team dunking the basketball
Luke Petrasek of the basketball team dunking the basketball

get dunked on

“Uglyball.” Two years ago, Ivy Hoops Online writer Sam Tydings (CC ’13) used that term to refer to the style of the men’s basketball team’s offense. The team played at a snail’s pace in the 2014-2015 season, and had plenty of success while doing it. They often worked to the very edge of the shot clock, trying to find the perfect 3-pointer instead of driving to the basket. It was not a “fun” team to watch, one with flashy blocks and huge dunks.

Columbia today, under first year Head Coach Jim Engles, plays fast. While the 2014-2015 team averaged 22-second possessions, meaning that, basically, the average shot occurred with eight seconds left on the shot clock (not accounting for rebounding’s effects on the “possession” statistic). This weekend, they averaged possessions under 17 seconds – the Lions are shooting the ball a lot earlier. Materially, this looks like Mike Smith and Nate Hickman trying to make a play at the basket before the opposing defense is entirely prepared, or Quinton Adlesh and Luke Petrasek experimenting with quicker catch-and-shoot 3’s.

But why does this matter? It felt to me that, during Columbia’s 87-78 loss to Yale on Friday and their 83-78 win over Brown on Saturday, the Lions were stifled when they took too long to make their shots. To test this hypothesis, I plotted the result (points scored) of each Lions’ possession against the time which that possession took during Friday’s game against Yale. A possession is every time one team has the ball until it gives the ball to the other. Possessions by either team end with a made shot, a free throw, a defensive rebound, or a turnover.

A graph showing that Columbia scored more on shorter possessions

shadowed circles represent duplicate data points

When the Lions run a quick play, or force Yale to foul them before the play even starts, they’re nearly unstoppable – their 16 possessions which lasted under 10 seconds accounted for 27 total points. Conversely, their 16 longest possessions, those which lasted 26 seconds or longer, scored only 11 points.

This proves that Engles’ Lions are the opposite of Kyle Smith’s Lions – the current team thrives during a faster game. According to KenPom’s “Adjusted Tempo” stat, which tracks how quickly each team plays, the Lions are in the top 100 nationally, second in the Ivy League only to Brown. Mike Smith is the most influential player in this change, but the entire team has bought into Engles’ philosophy.

This isn’t to say that Columbia has nothing to gain from long possessions, especially when they come from offensive rebounds, which reset the shot clock. But it does say that¬†something about the long possessions aren’t working. It could be Columbia’s clumsy attempts at second chance points – often, the Lions will attempt to put the ball right back into the basket after scoring an offensive rebound, as opposed to sending the ball to the perimeter and resetting the offense. Jake Killingsworth and Jeff Coby, in particular, have been the worst offenders here. Alternatively, the Lions offense, which usually plays quickly, might be tired out by long possessions. Finally, it’s possible that a long possession is indicative of a defense which the Lions can’t crack – however, the Lions did score 78 points against the Bulldogs.

The Lions have benefited from a so far easy Ivy schedule. Not only have they yet to play the powerhouse Princeton Tigers, they have also played five of their six games in the friendly confines of Levien Gym. Columbia is in 3rd place and needs to hang on in order to make it to the postseason tournament. Yale and Cornell play each other today in Ithaca, and the Lions are Bulldog fans for the day. If Yale wins (the chances of which are no doubt helped by an extra rest day between the NYC and Ithaca games), the Lions will be two games up on both Cornell and Brown. The Lions have the same home/away schedule as Cornell, meaning that they should be able to hold their lead over the Big Red. But the Lions’ penultimate game against the Brown Bears in March could prove essential to determining the fate of the playoffs.

God, he’s really tall via Columbia University Athletics/Mike McLaughlin

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1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    Quality article Ross! Doesn't fulfill the function of a game recap, really (which would have warranted more discussion of the Lions' defense imo), but definitely an interesting take on the game and the Lions' strategy in general.

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