does this look like the face of mercy

Something’s got to give in the Ivy League. This weekend, Columbia said, “not us.”

Another week of Ivy basketball has passed, and the top three teams have refused to cede any ground. Columbia, Yale, and Princeton all went 2-0. The Lions, unstable after dropping their first home game last week, bounced back in the strongest way possible. Against the bottom tier of the league, Columbia did not make the games close. Unlike earlier nailbiters against Cornell and Brown, these games saw the Lions assert their league dominance. Not only were their victories against Harvard and Dartmouth decisive, they displayed two completely different game types.

Game 1 against Harvard pit the Lions against a team shooting as hot as anyone in the Ivies. The Crimson shot 61%(!!) from downtown and 57% overall. How did the Lions put up with a Harvard team whose ability to make the ball roll just right carried echoes of Harvards past? Not only did Columbia shoot well themselves, but they got turnovers and used them. By abusing their length and quick hands, Columbia notched nine steals and forced 13 turnovers, which they converted into 25 points versus Harvard’s two. Alex Rosenberg and Maodo Lo worked together to dominate the court as a ruling couple, just as they were supposed to do when Rosenberg returned to the court. The two combined for 45 points and 8 assists, including Lo’s three-quarter court buzzer-beater to end the first half. The Lions neutralized the Crimson by nullifying Harvard’s offensive possessions, while scoring an astonishing 1.43 points on each of their own. Offensive efficiency is the Lions’ modus operandi.

But, the critics say, what happens when Columbia goes cold? What if they only shoot 31% from beyond the arc, like they did against Dartmouth on Saturday? They play a double-teaming defense and make their free throws. Dartmouth shot 32% on the game, which is actually remarkably high, considering the number of improbably desperation shots the Big Green landed in the first half. And very quietly, Columbia nailed 16 free throws on 17 attempts, including Grant Mullins going 7-7. Yes, Dartmouth’s offense lacked the two ingredients necessary to beat Columbia’s defense (more on that in a moment), but that doesn’t stop the fact that the Lions forced awful shots all night, and that they managed to score an Ivy-average 73 points while missing 20 three-pointers. The Lions proved that while they may live on the three, they don’t die on it. Columbia never gave up the lead once they got it, a necessary show of power against a bottom team in the Ivy league.

Does Columbia have a way to run at the Ivy title? I can’t give a probability, but the opportunity is there. Their offense is packed with threats. Of the starting five, Lo, Mullins, Rosenberg, and Petrasek are all legitimate three-point threats. Further, Petrasek is winning matchups in the key, while the rest are the three main Lions who drive to the basket. The result, when the offense is firing on all cylinders, is a dizzying engine in which players continuously drive to the basket, kick the ball out beyond the arc, and drive again. This serves the dual function of freeing up the paint for the Lions offense and of giving each player the opportunity to identify high-percentage shots and take them. When the Lions fail to score, it is against a team that removes one of those dimensions, a phenomenon to which Columbia is becoming increasingly resistant.

And what has allowed this team, which was called out time and again in the preseason for its defensive failings, to post a 4th place Ivy ranking in points allowed? They force turnovers at a better rate than Princeton and Yale, thanks a lot to some games where Columbia racked up absurd numbers of steals. They also have seemed increasingly persistent in double-teaming offensive threats. Especially under the basket, the Lions often swarm (pride?) around a man, forcing him to go up on a low-percentage shot. But this leads to the first exploit of the Lion’s defense – against a team with multiple frontcourt threats (see: Yale), this double-team under the basket leaves a man open who can receive a low pass and dunk. The other way to defeat the Lions is with the three-pointer. Columbia has allowed more three-point attempts and baskets than any other team in the Ivy League in a defense that a) feels comfortable giving a step of distance when defending the backcourt and b) lets players double-teamed under the basket dish out to the wing. Columbia was lucky enough to see some cold three-shooting from Princeton the first time they played the Tigers – next weekend, they might not be so lucky.

I bring up these flaws to point out that the Columbia of 2016 has only failed when against the best teams in the league. This weekend, they convincingly put down the lower teams, something Columbia will have to do twice more to allow themselves a shot at the Ivy title. But even thinking without the title, their “eye test” prestige went up a notch this weekend, which featured a dominant offense one day and a shut-down defense the next. Columbia’s intraleague struggles come against teams with national RPI rankings of 35 and 57. What Columbia is proving is that they are not a middle of the pack team. They are 8-2 when it counts, and they will trade punches with the best of them. (Here’s looking at you, NIT, CBI, and CIT.)

The face of vengeance via Columbia University Athletics/Mike McLaughlin