With its first game against Central Connecticut State this Friday, the men’s basketball team will begin its quest for its first Ivy League championship since sharing the title with Princeton and Penn in 2002.

Yale tied for second with Princeton in this year’s Ivy League preseason media poll, but head coach James Jones and the Elis said that they are working to unseat Harvard, ranked No. 1, and win the school’s first outright Ivy League crown since 1962. With a summer of international play and a slew of nonconference games against basketball powerhouses before league play starts, several members of the team said such a feat is possible.

Jones, guard Austin Morgan ’13 and captain Reggie Willhite ’12 all said that defense and hard work would be the keys to a successful season. Willhite said that defense has been a strength for the team in the past.

“We’ve always been good at defense,” Willhite said. “In ‘points scored against’ average we lead the [Ivy] League or were close to leading the league. We have to concentrate on … making the easy play offensively.”

Morgan added that the Bulldogs have to take the season one day at a time and focus on rebounding the basketball.

Jones said that the team still has several areas in which it needs to improve, including its intensity on both sides of the basketball as well as its transition defense. He added that the two scrimmages the team has played so far have shown that the team turns the ball over too much, so the Elis need to work on maintaining possession of the ball. While Jones said that he wished the team had another week to practice, he added that the players are ready to get on the court and play real games.

The team will have several opportunities to play against top competition in its nonconference schedule before Ivy League play starts Jan. 14 against Brown. The Bulldogs will play several teams from major basketball conferences, including Seton Hall of the Big East in a Nov. 22 away game and No. 10 Florida on Dec. 31. Jones and several players said that they look forward to playing these teams from power conferences.

Willhite said that the team looks forward to the opportunity to play under the lights and measure the team’s merit against such strong teams. Morgan added that the additional incentive of playing on national television against such strong teams will excite the Elis.

Jones said that the idea for scheduling the game against Florida came from a camp he went to there several years ago. He said he wanted to expose his team to the winning tradition, which includes national championships in 2006 and 2007, and that playing a team of that caliber would help to identify weaknesses before conference play began.

Before the team began official practice on Oct. 14, players trained in the off-season to prepare for the 2011-’12 season. Part of this off-season preparation involved international travel: After school ended last spring, Willhite said the team travelled to China for 10 days to train together and scrimmage local teams. The team went 3–1 on the tour, and Willhite added that not only would the practice help the team, but also that traveling as a group helped to bring it together.

Greg Mangano ’12 and Jeremiah Kreisberg ’14 also traveled abroad as they represented their national teams over the summer. Kreisberg played for the Israeli National Team at the Under-20 European Championships in Sarajevo, Bosnia, averaging 12.3 points in the tournament. Mangano helped the United States to a fifth-place finish at the World University Games in China this August, and he said that the experience he gained both against international competition and in practice was invaluable.

“It was a great experience,” Mangano said. “It’s not the competition you see every game … in the Ivy League. Over a month with those guys — Trevor Mbakwe of Minnesota and JaMychal Green of Alabama — really pushed me to develop my game.”

After playing with Team USA at the World University Games, Mangano was picked as the preseason Ivy League Player of the Year, but he said that winning the Ivy League title would not be because of him, but through a team effort.

Several members of the team stayed closer to campus to train for the upcoming season. Willhite and Mangano said that they were among several players who stayed on campus to take summer classes and take advantage of Yale’s facilities. Willhite added that Isaiah Salafia ’14 and Brandon Sherrod ’15 live nearby in Connecticut and were able to attend pickup games throughout the summer.

Willhite did not just stay on campus, however, as he travelled down to Florida to work with Phoenix Suns forward Grant Hill and former NBA player Christian Laettner. Willhite said that working with these players helped him with more than just his shooting and ball handling.

“No. 1 is experience,” Willhite said. “[It was] almost invaluable. They played at such a high level for so long. I just tried to be a sponge.”

Not all off-season preparation involved playing basketball. Greg Kelley ’14 said that he followed the strength and conditioning regimen given to the team by working out at his high school in Newton, Mass. Morgan said that he tried yoga over the summer.

“I wanted to increase my body movement and my body awareness,” Morgan said.

When the players came to campus to begin the school year, they were joined by a talented freshman class that included five recruits. Jones said that while it is difficult for freshman to come in and pick up a college system, all five freshmen would have a chance to make an impact on the team. Jones said that one weakness the team had last year was having only three post players. This year three freshmen — forwards Sherrod and Matt Townsend ’15 and center Will Childs-Klein ’15 — will add depth in the post to the Elis roster.

While the freshmen have not had the chance to take the court for the Bulldogs yet, Sherrod has great expectations for this year’s team.

“We are going to win it this year,” Sherrod said. “This is our year to win the Ivy League. … We have been working really hard and we are going to shock some people.”

The Elis will kick off the season this Friday, Nov. 11, against Central Connecticut State University at Mohegan Sun Arena.