For a Yale men’s basketball team that struggled on the road last season (5-9), the 2003-2004 season schedule reads like a godsend.

With their first ten games on the road, the Bulldogs did not play in New Haven until Jan. 8 last season. Yale finished its early season road trip at 5-5, where three of the five losses started a seven-game losing skid that left the Bulldogs playing catch-up for the rest of the season.

This winter, Yale will make its first appearance at the John J. Lee Amphitheater nearly a month earlier. The Eli’s first home game, against Sacred Heart University, will take place on Dec. 14. This will be closely followed by home contests against Fairfield University Dec. 17 and Niagara University Dec. 20.

“We just have a more balanced schedule,” Yale head coach James Jones said. “It wasn’t something we tried [consciously] to work on. This year the schedule came back to us a little bit, and a lot of the teams that we played on the road last season are coming to our gym.”

Not only is the early part of the schedule filled with games at “the church” — the alias for John J. Lee Amphitheater — it is also more competitive than in past years. Yale’s season opener at the Pre-Season NIT on Nov. 17 will be against the University of Connecticut.

The game will be televised live on ESPN2. A perennial powerhouse in men’s college hoops, the Huskies made it to the Sweet 16 last season and have been picked by ESPN’s Andy Katz as the nation’s top-ranked team going into this season.

“[Connecticut] is a great program and they have a lot of talent; their forward [Emeka] Okafor will likely be the first pick in the draft this year,” Jones said. “But I don’t think [it will be a blowout] by any means. Aside from the Stanford game last season, we’ve had a chance to win every one of the games we’ve played.”

But the Huskies will not be Yale’s only tough rival. The Elis are also slated to play the second leg of their three-year contract with Wake Forest University on Nov. 29 at the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport. The Demon Deacons have made it to the NCAA Tournament in two out of their last three seasons.

“[The strength of the schedule] is a reflection of what Coach James Jones has built at Yale,” Athletics Director Tom Beckett said. “Clearly this is one of the most challenging schedules in the history of Yale basketball. That’s the kind of respect that people give to this program.”

Despite having more home games early in the season and more competitive opponents throughout, the most interesting part of the schedule may be Yale’s Feb. 6 matchup against Columbia.

The first of the Elis’ two games against their Big Apple-based rivals, this will also mark the first meeting between brother coaches James and Joe Jones. Joe Jones was appointed head coach of Columbia in April.

“It’s certainly going to be an occasion for some more press attention,” James Jones said. “I know it’s great for the Jones family, and they will be there. But to tell you the truth, other than that, I haven’t given it much thought– Other than the handshake and maybe a hug after the game, it’s just going to be like any other game.”

2003-04 Yale Men’s Basketball Schedule

Nov. 17-28 Preseason NIT

Nov. 17 at Connecticut

Nov. 22-23 at Pepsi Marist Classic (Yale, Marist, Eastern Michigan, Coastal Carolina)

Nov. 26 at Bucknell

Nov. 29 vs. Wake Forest (Arena at Harbor Yard, Bridgeport)

Dec. 4 vs. Sacred Heart

Dec. 7 vs. Fairfield

Dec. 11 at St. Peter’s

Dec. 20 vs. Niagara

Dec. 30 at South Carolina

Jan. 3 at American

Jan. 7 at Rhode Island

Jan. 10 vs. SUNY Old Westbury

Jan. 16 vs. Brown

Jan. 23 at Brown

Jan. 30 vs. Pennsylvania

Jan. 31 vs. Princeton

Feb. 6 vs. Columbia

Feb. 7 vs. Cornell

Feb. 13 at Dartmouth

Feb. 14 at Harvard

Feb. 20 at Princeton

Feb. 21 at Pennsylvania

Feb. 27 vs. Harvard

Feb. 28 vs. Dartmouth

Mar. 5 at Cornell

Mar. 6 at Columbia.