St. John's vs Columbia pregame: 5 questions on the Lions with Big Apple Buckets

Leon Halip

St. John's last contest before conference play is a Barclays Center game against the Ivy League's Columbia Lions, an excellent-shooting team with skill and height that St. John's cannot afford to take lightly, given the team's 8-3 non-conference record and NCAA Tournament aspirations.

You don't know much about the Lions?

We have John of the esteemed Big Apple Buckets back to help us get to know the threat level of the Columbia Lions in Saturday's Winter Festival, including who to watch out for, why they are better than their record and how frustrating they may be to watch for those hoping for another Red Storm transition assault.

(And for discounted tickets for this weekend's Winter Festival, use this link and use the special offer code RUMBLE.)

Kyle Smith is in his fourth year in Morningside Heights - how is he doing in terms of Ivy League success and Columbia's past?

Well, how do you feel about the role "luck" plays in college basketball? Because that's going to be a big factor in how you evaluate the Lions. After going 6-8 in his first Ivy League campaign Smith has gone 4-10 in the 14-game tournament each of the past two seasons.

But (and it's a big but) Columbia was definitely better than their record last season. The Lions lost five conference game by four points or fewer. They also beat Harvard by 15. So overall it has been a mixed bag and expectations are that Columbia will do better in league play this season. There's this close loss stigma until the team proves otherwise.

The rest of Smith's legacy is still in progress, I would say. He has brought in talented players and the team is adapting to his style of play. The roster is still extremely young, but the pieces seem to be there to at least be a contender in the Ivy League for the foreseeable future. Also, because they don't play a great non-conference schedule the record is set up to qualify for postseason play, which would be great for the program.

The Lions, despite their 7-5 record, are 130 on kenpom.com's rankings, have been one of the best teams on the defensive glass and have posted some gaudy three-point shooting numbers. How much of that is their set of pillow-tough opponents and how much of that is legitimately threatening for a major-conference team?

I'm not sure if I would call Columbia's schedule "pillow-tough." The Lions just haven't beaten any of the hard teams they've played this season. They lost to Manhattan by 1-point at home in dramatic fashion, they hung tough with Michigan St. in East Lansing, lost at Elon in overtime, etc. If they had gotten one of those to go their way this is probably a slightly different story. The past two games Columbia has just dominated overmatched opponents (UMass Lowell, FDU), which is what a decent team should do. That's also why their ranking is 130th.

The three-point shooting numbers are for real. Four players on the team with at least 20 attempts are shooting 38% or better. Smith has the luxury of picking - and feeding - the hot hand between Meiko Lyles (38%), Maodo Lo (50%), Grant Mullins (41%) and Alex Rosenberg (48%).

The last three of those guys also have the ability to drive, which defenses without a talented interior defender have to respect. Now, St. John's has Chris Obekpa, so their defenders might play the arc a little more aggressively.

I would assume that Steve Lavin will try and drive the Columbia players off that line and into the paint where the Red Storm will have a distinct advantage in athleticism.

The defensive rebounding comes from a concerted effort to crash the glass and prevent opponents from getting multiple opportunities. The Lions don't want to run and as such can commit to sending four, sometimes even five, guys to the defensive glass. If you do that you have a better chance of getting rebounds.

Columbia's bigger guards - Lo, Lyles and Isaac Cohen - also rebound well for their position and can help out the frontcourt guys.

Which players will be the biggest threats on Saturday to St. John's?

This is really tough to answer. I'd game plan to contain Lo. He's had an offensive rating above 100 in every Columbia win and just once in their five losses. He's the Lions' primary ball-handler, though others can play the point guard role, so getting up into him can disrupt the flow of the entire team. I'm not sure who St. John's will play on Lo, but getting him out of his rhythm is a big key defensively.

Columbia is really that slow-paced? How are the Lions at stopping transition and dealing with athletic teams?

Why yes they are. Columbia wants to burn as much time off the shot clock as possible. Considering Lo, Mullins, Rosenberg, center Corey Osetkowski and even freshman forward Luke Petrasek are all quite confident with the ball in their hands under 10 seconds on the shot clock it doesn't matter who has the rock as it winds down. They grind and look for the best shot possible on offense, often using far more than their 20.5 seconds per offensive possession average.

What's interesting is that Columbia is pretty athletic. Petrasek is still harnessing that athleticism, but Lo and Cohen are excellent natural athletes at guard. Mullins is undersized, but also a good athlete.

A fun stat: MSU vs. Columbia was 63 possessions. The next slowest game for the Spartans? 68 possessions (twice).

The defensive rebounding strategy also slows down the game. Columbia does the opposite on the offensive glass, mostly relying on Osetkowski to go for misses and making sure the rest get back. So that helps control pace as well.

When will the Lions become New York's Team? Or at least the class of the Ivy League?

Wouldn't that be great? Probably not anytime soon. Harvard and Princeton are currently the class of the Ivy League and while Columbia has talent, the odds of the Lions challenging those two teams this season seem small. If Columbia could finish above .500 in Ivy League play for the first time in more than 10 years it'd be a bold step forward.

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