Ten games into his 19th season as the Yale men’s basketball head coach, James Jones felt it was time for a change.
His Bulldogs were inconsistent, as their 5–5 record indicated, and far from where he needed them to be for the upcoming Ivy League season. He started small, altering Yale’s starting lineup. The impact was immediate: Two days ago, the Elis claimed a down to the wire, 86–77 win over Lehigh.
Over the next five weeks, Jones will have an opportunity to make many more mid-season adjustments, as the semester and a hectic nonconference season draw to a close. The 2017–18 season has been one unlike any other with a blend of preseason hype and debilitating injuries, and Jones will finally have some time to address these concerns on the practice court. But he won’t have too much of it, as the Elis’ conference opener looms just six games ahead.
To prepare for their return to Ancient Eight play since bowing out in the finals of the inaugural Ivy League Tournament, the Bulldogs will face four mid-major opponents with a combined record of 13–19 before closing out the nonconference season against Georgia Tech.
“We have some challenges that are ahead of us,” Jones said leading up to Yale’s matchup with Texas Christian on Nov. 2. “We have a really difficult rest of the nonconference schedule … So we [have] to continue to work together to play, cut down on our bad possessions, take care of the ball and play better defense.”
Against Lehigh, Jones’ adjustment seemed to spark the Bulldogs, who ambushed their opponents early, opening a 31–12 lead in the first half, as guards Eric Monroe ’20 and Azar Swain ’21 replaced guards Miye Oni ’20 and Trey Phills ’19 in the starting five. But Yale quickly cooled off as the Mountain Hawks clawed their way back into the game, ultimately tying the fixture at 75 with two minutes remaining.
The Elis ultimately pulled ahead again to climb to one game over .500 on the season, but it remains to be seen whether Jones will continue to use this new starting lineup moving forward. Oni and guard Alex Copeland ’19, who retained his normal starting position against Lehigh, said they did not know what motivated Jones’ to make the changes, but the players supported their coach’s choice.
“That was coach’s decision, and we feel good with any lineup we have out there,” Copeland said. “It was really big for us because we’ve had a couple games where it’s been tight at the end, and we haven’t been able to pull it out. So, to be able to have the maturity and to have the resolve to really hunker down and make sure that we were able to pull it out and hit big shots at the end of the game — that felt really good.”
Yale’s next two games, against St. Bonaventure and Iona, feature opponents that have qualified for the NCAA tournament at least once in the last six seasons and have proven to be consistent contenders for a spot in the Big Dance.
The Bonnies, like the Elis, dropped a contest to TCU earlier in the season, albeit by a smaller margin of 10 points. Led by senior guard Matt Mobley, who averages 20.6 points per game, the current Atlantic 10 leaders’ top four scorers are upperclassmen. This veteran crew will likely provide the Bulldogs with their stiffest remaining mid-major competition.
But the Gaels cannot be overlooked, either. Although their record stands at just 3–4, Iona defeated Albany by two points in its season opener, not long before the Great Danes handed Yale its third loss of the season.
Following next Tuesday’s game against the Gaels, the Bulldogs will have nine days before their matchup with Monmouth. The break will give Jones the long-awaited practice time he has craved since losing two-fifths of his preseason starting lineup to injury.
“It’s really important, especially for the freshmen to use this time and learn the offense more, just get more acclimated as a team for all of us to keep playing with each other,” Oni said of the upcoming practice time. “We [mainly] want to improve on our defense, our finishing around the rim and our ball screening.”
Monmouth and Kennesaw State, Yale’s last two opponents of 2017, both have sub .500 records, and the Bulldogs will look to put their execution of Jones’ game plans to the test against weaker competition.
The Bulldogs’ final tuneup for the Ivy League schedule will come after the new year against Georgia Tech, in Yale’s last opportunity to knock down a representative from a major conference. Sports Illustrated projected the Yellow Jackets to finish 11th out of 15th in the ACC, but they have nonetheless posted solid showings in the first part of their campaign.
In a game better known for the off-court antics of former UCLA player LiAngelo Ball, Georgia Tech lost to the Bruins by just three points in Shanghai on Nov. 10. More recently, the Jackets stung Northwestern, a 2017 NCAA Tournament team, 52–51, when guard Tadric Jackson banked in a layup as time expired.
Jackson, a senior, leads Georgia Tech in scoring with 16.8 points per game. Fellow veteran Ben Lammers anchors the inside for the Yellow Jackets, standing at 6-foot-10 and pulling down 8.1 rebounds per game in addition to 14.3 points. Yale forward Paul Atkinson ’21 will likely guard Lammers in what could be a decisive defensive matchup.
But this is all a prelude to Jan. 12, when the games really start to matter. The Bulldogs will open their Ancient Eight campaign at the John J. Lee Amphitheater against Brown, which finished 4–10 in the league last season. All eyes will be on captain and guard Makai Mason ’18, who is expected to return to the court in that contest for the first time in nearly two years.
The last time Yale fans saw Mason on the court came in Providence, Rhode Island in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
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