For Yale men’s basketball coach James Jones, the 2002-03 schedule was the hardest to put together in his four-year tenure. That can mean only one thing — the Bulldogs have arrived.
Successful small-conference teams typically have difficulty finding competition that is willing to face them. Jones and company are now good enough to have that problem.
Last year’s wins at Rutgers, Clemson and Penn State had major-conference teams thinking twice about playing Yale. Nevertheless, Jones still succeeded in compiling a stiff non-conference schedule for the Elis, highlighted by games at national powers Oklahoma State, Wake Forest and Stanford. The schedule’s main drawback is its lack of home games. Yale has only two non-conference home foes, resulting in only nine games — just one-third of the 27-game schedule — in the friendly confines of the John J. Lee Amphitheater, where Yale went 10-1 last year.
“Nobody wants to play you. Nobody wants to go and lose to a non-scholarship program,” Jones said.
Returning every player from last year’s NIT team, Yale kicks off the much anticipated 2002-03 season Nov. 22 against Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are the first of at five definite Yale opponents that played in the NCAA tournament last year. Wake Forest (Nov. 27), Holy Cross (Dec. 11 in the Phoenix Classic), Stanford (Dec. 30), and Pennsylvania (Feb. 14, Mar. 1) are the others. Central Connecticut State, also playing in the two-round Phoenix Classic, could be a sixth tourney team on the Elis’ slate.
“I find it hard to believe that there are teams [in the Ivy League] with a harder schedule than we have, especially considering the quality of games we have on the road,” Jones said.
The Elis will also play in one of the most hallowed arenas in all of sports when they face Manhattan College Dec. 7 in Madison Square Garden. The game is part of a tripleheader that will also include St. John’s versus Fordham and Georgia Tech versus Marist, according to ESPN.com.
“It is like the mecca,” captain Chris Leanza ’03 said of the Garden. “Some of the best games ever held were at the Madison Square Garden.”
Yale does not open its home schedule until Jan. 8, when Rhode Island comes to New Haven for the second straight year. In order to secure the Rams as an opponent, Yale had to pay Rhode Island roughly $8,000 in what is known as a “guaranteed game,” Jones said.
Yale is usually the recipient in such an arrangement, when the likes of an Oklahoma State or a Stanford pay out 30 to 40 thousand dollars to teams willing to make a one-time trip to their home venues. But based on Yale’s success at major conference opponents last year, even those games are harder to come by.
“We go down to Clemson and they give us a guaranteed game. They are not too happy to pay $40,000 and lose at the same time,” Jones said.
The only other non-conference home game is against Division III Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, traditionally a Yale hockey rival. Despite having a nine-game home slate, with seven Ivy League home games rounding out the home schedule, local fans will have plenty more opportunities to see Yale in person. The Elis play four other games in Connecticut: at Sacred Heart (Dec. 5), at Fairfield (Jan. 5), and twice at the Hartford Civic Center during the Phoenix Classic.
Notes: Yale planned on opening the season at the Top of The World Classic in Anchorage, but a court ruling this summer forbade NCAA teams from taking a pre-season foreign trip and playing in an exempt tournament, like the Alaska tournament, in the same year. Jones said the decision to keep the Elis’ August trip to Italy and bag the Alaska tournament was an easy one, saying the bonding the team did on the Italy trip will benefit the Elis more in the long run– Jones is already working on next year’s schedule, especially the home portion. Wake Forest and Holy Cross are due to make appearances at the Lee Amphitheater in 2003-04, and he is close to securing a four-year contract with Bucknell that would begin with a game in New Haven next year– Leanza suffered a knee injury while practicing for the trip to Italy. He played through pain on the trip, but said the knee is feeling good now that he has been able to rest it. He does not expect the knee to give him troubles during the season, and shoulder troubles that have plagued him throughout his Yale career also seem to be in the past. “The shoulder is great,” Leanza said. “This is the first summer where I got to work on my game and not have surgery.”