William McCormack

When Yale men’s basketball head coach James Jones leads the Elis into Long Island for their season opener on Tuesday night, he’ll have a special supporter in the crowd: his fifth-grade teacher.

Yale (0–0, 0–0 Ivy) visits Stony Brook (0–0, 0–0 America East) to kick off its 2019–20 campaign, a game that will mark the start of Jones’ 21st season as head coach of the program and send the longtime Bulldog leader back home. A Long Island native who grew up about 25 minutes from the Seawolves’ campus, Jones will coach against an experienced Stony Brook squad in front of local, longtime friends at the Island Federal Credit Union Arena on Tuesday night, including his fifth-grade teacher.

The pair had lost touch since Jones graduated from high school at Half Hollow Hills West and moved on to attend the University of Albany, where he also played basketball for the school’s then-Division III team. But on a recruiting trip last fall, he opened his phone to a surprise email from his teacher. She declared him her favorite student of all time and detailed how she had been following his collegiate coaching career, and the two have since reconnected, meeting for lunch in Stamford and a meal in New Haven. On Tuesday they’ll meet again, as she and her husband are set to watch the Bulldogs play on the island for the first time since Jones became the Yale head coach in 1999.

“She was my favorite teacher as well,” Jones said. “I would go visit her whenever I had a chance. When I was in high school, I’d go back to my elementary school just to see her because she was really kind to me and good to me. It’s one of those people that you just kind of remember … I’ll have people like that who’ll come down to the game to watch, friends from a long time ago.”

When it comes to basketball, Jones also knows his opposing head coach well. Geno Ford, named the head coach of the Seawolves last March after serving as Stony Brook’s associate head coach since 2016, coached with Jones at Ohio University. The two worked under Larry Hunter at Ohio before Jones left to assume his role at Yale in April 1999, while Ford went on to lead Kent State and Bradley before making his way to Long Island.

Both coaches will be looking to open the 2019–20 season on a high note after strong performances last year. The Seawolves finished the year at 24–9 with a second-place finish in America East before falling to Binghamton in the first round of the conference tournament, a six-point upset that robbed any hopes of advancing to the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament.

Yale, who defeated Princeton and Harvard at Ivy Madness last March in order to make it to the Big Dance, plans to prioritize effort, defense and rebounding, said captain and guard Eric Monroe ’20. Although the team’s focus may be on itself, he said the Elis aren’t taking Stony Brook lightly.

“They always finish in the top half of their conference,” Monroe said. “They’re a solid basketball program. Especially going on the road, you got to take the game from them. They’re not going to give it to you, but that’s true of any opening game… We know they’re a program that’s always consistently pretty good, so we know they’re not going to lay down, but the main focus is on us [and] how are we going to start the season.”

The Seawolves, selected third in this season’s America East preseason poll behind Vermont and UMBC, have finished top two in the conference in seven of the past eight seasons. With the exception of its star player last year, English forward Akwasi Yeboah, Stony Brook returns an experienced corps of sophomores and juniors. Yeboah averaged 16.7 points and 7.7 rebounds a game last season but transferred to Rutgers in May with one year of eligibility remaining. The Seawolves, however, return all-conference guards Elijah Olaniyi and Miles Latimer, as well as junior center Jeff Otchere — the America East Defender of the Year in 2018–19 — and the league’s Sixth Man of the Year last season, redshirt junior Andrew Garcia.

The starting lineup that Jones and his staff will select for the Bulldogs is much more difficult to forecast. Returning starter and forward Jordan Bruner ’20 will anchor the Elis, while forward Paul Atkinson ’21 and guard Azar Swain ’21 appear poised to join him in the starting lineup after both averaged about 20 minutes a game last season. As he considers how to allocate the two remaining spots in the starting lineup, Jones told the News that he has been impressed by many players who failed to crack the Bulldogs’ rotation last season, emphasizing that all 15 on the Elis’ roster are in consideration to receive more minutes.

“Everyone for the most part has shown me that they deserve an opportunity to receive minutes,” Jones said. “Obviously, you can’t play 15 guys, but everybody is showing me that they deserve an opportunity … We’re still trying to figure stuff out — who we’re going to start and who are going to play minutes, and that will all be adjusted as play begins and guys prove what they can do when the lights are on because it’s one thing to do stuff in practice, and it’s another thing to do stuff in games.”

The Elis have played Stony Brook only once before, a game that took place during the infancy of Jones’ Yale career. During an interview with the News, Jones turned to a record book from the 2001–02 season in his office cabinet to refresh his memories on the details. The game, an 82–62 Yale win, took place on Nov. 23, 2001, at George Washington University in the Red Auerbach Colonial Classic.

The two programs’ second-ever matchup sends Yale on a short bus trip out of state before it returns Friday for a home opener versus Oberlin. The Bulldogs’ season opener against California a year ago, on the other hand, involved a business-class flight to Shanghai for the Pac-12 China Game.

“[For] our schedule this year, we still are traveling a lot, but the home games are spewed in there a little bit,” Atkinson said last week, reflecting on the nonconference slate. “We start in November and then we go up until before finals. We have a lot of away games and a few home games mixed in this time compared to last year when we were traveling all the time after China. It’s different, but I’m going to enjoy it.”

Yale and Stony Brook are set to tip off Tuesday at 7 p.m., with SNY and ESPN+ both carrying the broadcast.

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu