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Ask any coach about the importance of non-conference schedules, and you will likely get different answers.

For some, it is about forging a team identity, and for others, it is an opportunity to test their teams with tough matchups. But for Columbia coach Joe Jones and his Lions, it’s mostly about gaining experience.

Columbia went 6-8 in non-conference play before losing to defending Ivy League champion Cornell twice this month.

The Lions have gone through some growing pains as a result of their inexperience. The team lost its second-leading scorer and top rebounder, Jason Miller to graduation and filling the void in the starting lineup have been, essentially, two rookies.

Freshman center Mark Cisco has been given the opportunity to start the last seven games, while junior Brian Grimes, a transfer from La Salle, is also playing his first season with the Lions.

The new lineup — coupled with minor injuries sustained by Grimes and guard Patrick Foley, who leads the team in assists — has made the learning curve a bit steeper.

Though the Lions have edged their opponents in first-half scoring, they have been outpaced 612-524 after halftime. Experienced teams know how to play with a lead and not become complacent, something Columbia has struggled to do thus far.

If there’s one development that has been a success, it’s Noruwa Agho, one of the best scorers in the conference. The 6-foot-3 guard was third on his team in scoring last year as a freshman and has since taken his game to a new level, leading the Lions with 16.8 points per game.

Throughout his first 16 games, Agho has shot 54 percent from beyond the arc, ranking him third in the nation. The marksman is a major weapon for Columbia, particularly because only one other Lions player (fellow guard Niko Scott) has hit more than eight threes all season.

However, the knock on Agho has been his poor assist-to-turnover ratio. For a guard who controls the ball and draws double-teams as much as he does, he has only dished out 31 assists — 1.9 per game — while committing 41 turnovers.

Besides Agho, the Lions have decent depth, with Foley, Grimes and Scott all legitimate threats to score in double figures. However, they are a bit soft inside. The Lions boast two seven-footers, but neither has gained significant playing time, and Columbia as a team has not developed much of an inside presence defensively.

“Overall, we gotta keep working on our defense,” Jones said. “There are times when we’re giving up too much dribble penetration.”

Allowing dribble penetration becomes more problematic when there are no legitimate shot-blockers to defend the rim. Grimes leads the team with only six blocks.

If the Lions want to improve upon last season’s 7-7 Ivy record, they will have to gel on the defensive end. But, eventually, success comes down to experience and playing with one another.

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