The men’s basketball team is set to experience many firsts when they play the University of Connecticut tonight at 7 p.m. in the Gampel Pavilion at Storrs, Conn.
In addition to being the first game of the 2003-2004 season, it is Yale’s first-ever appearance in the Preseason National Invitation Tournament. It will be the first time an Eli game has been televised on ESPN2, and men’s basketball publicity contact Tim Bennett said that it is believed to be the Yale team’s first appearance on a national television network. But the most important first is the one the Bulldogs are facing — UConn is the preseason No. 1 team in the nation in both ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and the Associated Press poll.
“I expected to play a competitive schedule [when I committed to Yale],” captain Matt Minoff ’04 said. “But I never really thought about playing the No. 1 team in the nation on national TV. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The Yale Athletic Department is providing a bus that will travel to Storrs in order to accommodate the large student interest in the game.
“I think it’s going to be awesome,” basketball fan Lynn Kau ’06 said. “You have the intensity of high-level college basketball meeting the Yale team, which isn’t half bad either. I really don’t care about Ivy League basketball, but when my school plays someone big-time, I get excited.”
Tonight’s game is a further reminder of how far the Yale basketball program has come since head coach James Jones took over in 1999. In the four years prior to Jones’ arrival, Yale won a total of 15 Ivy League games; the Elis have won 31 in the first four years of Jones’ tenure. The 2001-2002 Yale team was a co-champion of the Ancient Eight.
“I certainly think that four years ago, Yale and UConn playing in the NIT on national television wasn’t anything that anyone could foresee,” Jones said.
Yale fans are equally pleased with the results.
“My freshman year, I would never have even imagined we would be playing a top 10 team, much less the No. 1 team,” fan Bobby Womack ’04 said. “We’re playing the best team in the country, and it’s less than an hour away — there’s nothing that could keep me away from this game.”
Despite the fanfare, the Elis do not plan on the game being the peak of their season.
“I don’t see [the UConn game] as the culmination,” Minoff said. “I see it as kind of yard-marker that shows how good our program has become. I think the culmination would be making it to the [NCAA] tournament and breaking that 42-year streak.”
Yale has not played in the NCAA tournament since 1962.
The Huskies are undoubtedly aiming for much more than an NCAA appearance. UConn returns all five starters from a team that advanced to the “Sweet 16″ in last season’s NCAA tournament. Included in that group are Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, both of whom were recently named as preseason candidates for the Naismith College Basketball Player of the Year Award.
“They’re the number one team in the country — it’s going to be tough to beat them,” Paul Vitelli ’04 said. “There are probably three of four potential NBA players on that team. There are guys like Ben Gordon, who is one of the most talented players in the nation at the college level, and then there are guys like Emeka Okafor, who is among the most athletic. They’re going to be a lot faster, a lot bigger, and they’re pretty much better in every aspect of the game. But if they don’t work together and play together, that’s when teams like us who may not be as physically talented as they are but who work together can jump up and bite them.”
Yale, which returns the majority of its 2000-2001 Ivy Championship squad, is far from pessimistic.
“I don’t know what I’d say to people [who thought Yale would lose by as many as 40 points],” Jones said. “I don’t know if they know much about my program. We’ve played some quality programs like Ohio State, Wake Forest and Stanford, and none of those teams beat us by 40 so I don’t know why anybody would think we’d start now.”
The last time Yale played an opponent ranked in the top 10 was on Feb. 14, 1998, when they faced No. 9 Princeton. That high watermark for the boys of Old Nassau is still something to which the Elis aspire.
“There is no question that Yale has earned a tremendous amount of national recognition and respect since Coach Jones took over,” Bennett said. “Coach Jones has built a program that is competitive year in and year out. Penn and Princeton have been nationally ranked on occasion and won games in the NCAA Tournament, and there is no reason why Yale can’t have similar success.”
Minoff, who has led Yale in blocked shots in each of the past two seasons, was not sure he could top the shot-blocking prowess of Emeka Okafor, who led the nation in blocked shots last season and is one of the best shot blockers in NCAA history. But Minoff emphasized that he thought Yale could have success against the Huskies.
“I’m going to have to give that win to him, as much as I’d like to tell you that I’d lead the game in block shots,” Minoff said. “I think he has more opportunities — and he is the best shot blocker in the country. I’d tell [those predicting Yale to get blown out] to wait and see.”