When Jim Engles was hired as Columbia men’s basketball’s new head coach, senior forward Luke Petrasek knew that he had to adjust.
It wasn’t that the senior forward had struggled a year ago. In fact, he averaged 10 points per game and tallied a team-high 40 blocks in just 23.7 minutes per contest in the 2015-16 campaign. But with the departure of four key seniors and former head coach Kyle Smith, Petrasek had to relearn how to think on a basketball court.
“Coach Engles has specifically asked me to play faster … getting to my shot faster, getting my shot off faster, [and] getting to spots quicker, so it’s just a higher tempo right now that I’m just trying to adjust to,” Petrasek said.
According to kenpom.com, the Highlanders, under then-head coach Engles, executed their offense at the 105th-fastest adjusted raw tempo in Division I. Conversely, the Light Blue played at the 310th-fastest adjusted raw tempo under former head coach Kyle Smith.
While there is no statistic that quantifies the benefit of increasing the speed of play, Engles’ desire to play faster is a personal preference.
“I’m used to it because that’s what we used to run at NJIT, and that’s what I’m comfortable with,” Engles said. “If you’re going to be successful, you have to be yourself, and I just like playing fast.”
In the season opener against Stony Brook, Petrasek capitalized in transition, shifting between power forward and center en route to a 20-point performance against the Seawolves. The senior forward flashed his versatility in a key second-half stretch, scoring nine unanswered points. Even though the new offense wasn’t exactly executed to perfection, Engles came away pleased with the big man’s effort.
“You expect him to step up, so it’s exciting to see that,” Engles said after the game.
Petrasek also provided Engles with a new asset relative to his time at NJIT: height.
The Highlanders’ tallest starter last year stood at 6-foot-6, as Engles often used lineups with smaller, quicker guards. But Columbia projects to start three players standing taller than 6-foot-8, headlined by the 6-foot-10 Petrasek.
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Size may not always translate to success in an up-tempo offense, but Engles is bucking the trend. He has given Petrasek and the rest of his teammates the tall task of adjusting to his system, one ultimately designed for a faster pace and to generate more shots.
For the rest of the team, the adjustment to the new offense has been aided by Engles’ desire to get to know each of the players—both on and off the court—in hopes of easing the transition into a new system.
Senior forward Jeff Coby, who has been held out with a small hamstring issue this season, credited Engles’ spring meeting with helping players feel comfortable with the new system.
“He talked about who he was and what he expected and what he wanted for each individual,” Coby said. “It’s basically all about putting the work in. We’re all on the same page about that. We’re all basically a cohesive unit, and it’s just been good so far.”
Despite the intentions of both Engles and the coaching staff, the offense hasn’t quite hit its stride in the team’s first two contests. Ken Pomeroy puts the raw tempo of Columbia’s first two contests at 282nd in the country, far from the desired pace at which the coach yearns to execute.
“Honestly, it wasn’t great. It wasn’t what I envisioned,” Engles said of the offensive execution after the Stony Brook contest. “I think we have a working knowledge of what we need to do, but we’ll get a chance to improve as we start moving through.”
Leading the offense through the first two games was first-year point guard Mike Smith. Smith attributed his rapid development over the course of the summer and fall to difficult practices, during which conditioning and shooting are hammered home at a higher level than they are during high school practices.
As for the program’s culture on and off the floor, Engles has left a majority of the foundation established by the departed Smith intact.
“He’s a really good coach, so he’s not going to come in and say, ‘You guys have something terrible going,’” junior guard Nate Hickman said. “We had a really good season last year, so he’s trying to come in and implement just a few things that can help us get to the next level for the season.”
Assistant coach Jared Czech reiterated that philosophy, noting that the new staff hasn’t tried to entirely rework last year’s formula. After all, the Lions won 25 games and became the second-ever Ivy team to win a postseason tournament, which included a victory over Engles’ former NJIT squad in the semifinals.
Months later, Engles still marvels at the Lions’ ability to compete from a year ago, even texting Kyle Smith to express his gratitude. But as the implementation of the new offense has shown, Engles is determined to supplement that culture with his own playing style.
His main goal is to win games, opting for speed and youth in positions where Smith had long prioritized patience and experience. Though the task may seem daunting, especially without four key seniors, Engles’ mission is clear: to make the team’s successful 2015-16 season the standard.