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The Big Preview: Virginia back in action against Columbia

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NCAA Basketball: James Madison at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Over their first two games, the Virginia Cavaliers have allowed 68 points—total. There are 250 teams averaging more than that per game. The Columbia Lions are one of them, but barely, after a 75 point outburst over Binghamton on Wednesday. Binghamton is one of the worst teams in the nation, so that’s not a surprise. Prior to that, the Lions were averaging just 63 per game (exactly 63 in each of their first two contests). And those games were not against good defenses.

In other words, don’t be too surprised if we get another Pack Line Pledge game. The Lions last played in the NCAA Tournament over 50 years ago. Their highlight this century is winning the CBI in 2016. Maybe you’ve heard, but Virginia’s recent highlight is a bit more impressive.

The Lions are led by senior PG Mike Smith. Hmm, a 5’11” PG who leads his team in scoring, assists, FGA, and FTA. Wanna guess who he’s going to see in front of him all game? Smith missed most of last year with a torn meniscus, but seems to be right back where he was when he averaged 18 points per game as a sophomore in 2017-18.

Smith drives the offense for the Lions. They’ll run a lot of screen action often at the top of the key. Here’s an example, highlighted by an impressive shot from Smith. Virginia defends that much better than Wake does, and should prevent Smith from turning the corner on these.

On this one, Smith waves off the screen after seeing the defense switching. Then he beats the big man off the dribble for the layup.

Four Lions averaged double figures last year, but Smith is the only one remaining (Gabe Stefanini is on the team, but is out indefinitely with an injury). Smith leads the team at over 21 points per game. If Kihei can shut Smith down, Columbia is going to have trouble scoring.

Like a lot of these mid-major and low-major teams, the Lions do not have much size. The starting lineup is four guards and one big. There are two big men who basically split the minutes, sophomore Ike Nweke and junior Joseph Smoyer (a transfer from Portland). Nweke is just 6’7” 240, but he’s strong and works hard defensively. Smoyer is 6’11”, which gives him an advantage on the boards, and he has a more developed offensive game.

Their leading rebounder is 6’5” senior Jake Killingsworth. He also leads the team in three point makes and attempts, at 7/21. He shot 38% last year (41/107), which is pretty solid. Last year’s team was stocked with shooters, including five guys making over 36% on at least one attempt per game. That is missing this year, as the team is shooting just 24% from downtown. That’s killing their offense.

Virginia is also struggling from outside, shooting a whopping 16% from downtown. But because of their size, Virginia still sports an above average offense. The offensive glass has been a boost to Virginia, not something we’re used to seeing. And Virginia is shooting 57% on two-pointers so far this year. Right now, that’s enough to give Virginia the 30th most efficient offense in the nation (per KenPom). Once (if?) the threes start dropping, Virginia’s offense should be pretty good.

Columbia’s best defender is 6’7” junior Randy Brumant.

He’ll likely match up with Diakite, but he’s giving up 2 inches and at least 30 pounds. Diakite has been Virginia’s go to scorer and there’s no reason to stop that this game. Brumant is solid offensively as well, but isn’t used to facing Mamadi Diakite. Considering he shot just 24% from downtown last year, pulling Diakite outside isn’t the answer.

Head Coach Joe Engles might decide to get some more shooting on the floor. In that case, he’ll turn to freshman Jack Forrest, whose minutes are trending up. He is 5/10 from downtown early in his career.

That’s a deep pull up three, and is something Virginia’s defenders will be wary of from Columbia’s wings. The Lions will try to speed the game up, and quick shots is one way to do that. Of course, quick 25-footers against Virginia’s defense and strength on the defensive glass is not a recipe for success. But, if it extends the defense and gives Mike Smith some more room to maneuver inside, it might be worth it.

Virginia is coming off a week off, which might mean rust. They also are back at it on Tuesday against a strong Vermont team. Virginia should use this game to get rid of any rust that’s built up and to hopefully get the young guys going offensively. Virginia fans still have not seen much on that end from the young wings. Casey Morsell, Tomas Woldetensae and Kody Stattmann are a combined 6/32 (18%) from the field, including 2/23 (8.6%) from downtown. That can’t continue if Virginia is going to be successful this year.