In the midst of what appears to be its best chance to dance in March in years, the Yale men’s basketball team is already building its profile for the 2015–16 season, with recent confirmation that the Bulldogs will face the University of Southern California, Southern Methodist University and, most notably, perennial powerhouse Duke.
The news, which has yet to be made public but has been confirmed by head coach James Jones and by assistant director of sports publicity Tim Bennett, means Yale will continue a hallmark of the James Jones era — a demanding non-conference schedule.
“We want to challenge ourselves and see what warts we have,” Jones said. “We want to be exposed, and the best way to do that is to play some of the best teams in the country, so we try to do that each and every year.”
Jones said forming the non-conference schedule, which he exclusively controls and is on the verge of completing for next season, is an opportunity to prepare the Bulldogs to be at their best for Ivy play.
Since taking the reigns of Yale’s program in 1999, Jones has led his squad to finishes in the top half of the Ivy League in every season but his first.
“Part of the reason coach Jones has been so successful in Ivy League play throughout his career has been his ability to construct a tough schedule,” forward Sam Downey ’17 said. “It ensures that we face adversity and get better by the time Ivy play comes around.”
The tough schedule has also provided a chance for the Bulldogs to shine on the national stage, as demonstrated by a thrilling 45–44 victory on Dec. 5 over the defending national champions, the University of Connecticut. While Jones said UConn has reached out to play Yale next season, nothing is confirmed — he has “no desire to play them,” and would like to enjoy that victory for a little while longer.
Next year’s slate will now include the fourth-ever meeting between Yale and SMU, as well as the second-ever matchup between Yale and USC. But the highlight of the non-conference schedule will be the fourth-ever meeting between Yale and Duke — arguably the most storied program in men’s college basketball.
Although USC and SMU each boast historically rich pasts, including three Final Four appearances between the two schools, the Blue Devils have appeared in 15 Final Fours alone. In addition, Duke has advanced to 10 NCAA championship games and won four of those title appearances, resulting in the highest winning percentage of all time in the NCAA Tournament.
In addition, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski just secured his 1,000th win, becoming the first coach to do so in the history of Division I men’s basketball. The Hall of Famer’s resume includes four national championships, two Olympic gold medals and 30 NCAA Tournament appearances in the past 31 seasons. The lone year during that stretch in which the Blue Devils failed to make the Big Dance, Krzyzewski, often called Coach K, left the team midway through the year for medical reasons.
But Jones does not see the chance to go mano a mano with the Blue Devils’ legendary leader as part of the allure of facing off against Duke.
“I don’t ever think about it for me personally in terms of coaching against Coach K,” Jones said. “Playing at different venues for me is probably more exciting than anything else. That’s actually part of the allure to play these teams, because you get to play in these different environments that are going to be a little bit more difficult than what we see in the Ivy League.”
Jones’s players share this sentiment, as Downey mentioned that opportunities such as getting to play at Duke’s historic Cameron Indoor Stadium are part of the appeal of playing for Yale, given Jones’ tendencies to play top-flight programs.
For guard Makai Mason ’18, who has shone as a freshman during the Elis’ hot start to conference play, the Duke meeting will be one of added significance.
“I always hoped to play against Duke because they were recruiting me early on and then stopped,” Mason said. “I’ll definitely relish the opportunity and go in there with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. Hopefully we can get a win in front of the [Cameron] Crazies.”
A win in any of these three meetings would be a first for the Bulldogs, who are 0–3 all-time against SMU as well as 0–1 in their lone meeting against the Trojans back in 1988.
Whereas Mason’s significance comes from a desire to prove himself to a program that snubbed him, soon-to-be seniors Khaliq Ghani ’16 and Nick Victor ’16 will have a chance to return to their home regions and likely play in front of their families.
Ghani, a guard from Inglewood, Calif., and Victor, a guard from Dallas, Texas, will each get to indulge in a homecoming of sorts, when they travel to USC and SMU respectively. Just as when guard Javier Duren ’15 was able to travel to St. Louis Mo. last year and how guard Jack Montague ’16 had the chance to return go back to Tennessee for a meeting with Vanderbilt this season, Jones is continuing to reward some of his older players with a trip close to home.
“We’ll get to play a team that I grew up watching and going to camps at as a kid,” Ghani said. “My mom graduated from there and I got to walk the stage with her when I was little … That’ll be the best part, getting to compete in front of my hometown, my friends and [my] family.”
These trips across the country not only reward Jones’ veterans, but they also double as recruitment tools for the Elis, allowing players from distant regions to get to see the team in action without making the trek to New Haven.
On the flip side, when Yale travels to North Carolina to take on the Blue Devils, it will surely be a welcome sight for Duke President Richard Brodhead ’68 GRD ’72.
Prior to becoming Duke’s ninth president in 2004, Brodhead served as the dean of Yale College for 11 years, capping off nearly 40 years at Yale between being a student, professor and administrator.
While Jones stated Brodhead’s connection to the school as the reason for the scheduling of the game, Brodhead denied having any involvement in the matter.
“I am delighted at this news but the president doesn’t play a role in setting the basketball schedule,” Brodhead said in an email. “Pleased that I am at such fantasies of omnipotence!”
While USC has struggled to a 9–12 mark this season, Duke and SMU are each ranked nationally,