William McCormack

For Ivy League teams on the road, playing back-to-back games at Cornell and Columbia is a notorious struggle.

Road wins are a rare commodity in the Ancient Eight this men’s basketball season, which has seen the home team capture 23 of 32 total contests thus far, and when 230 miles and a four-hour bus drive separate the two campuses — rural and urban, the Big Red and Light Blue — travel adds to the challenge.

Yale (18–6, 6–2 Ivy) plays in the Empire State this weekend, where it faces Cornell (5-16, 2-6) on Friday and Columbia (6–18, 1–7) on Saturday. Earlier this season, the Elis swept the duo with a combined 46 points at home, containing the impact of Columbia guard Mike Smith, who remains the conference’s leading scorer with an average of 21.6 points a game, and Cornell forward Jimmy Boeheim. The Big Red has beaten Princeton, and the Lions have played Harvard to double-overtime in the weeks since — the Elis remain familiar with each side’s personnel.

Yale head coach James Jones knows one of his coaching counterparts well, too. Columbia head coach Jim Engles, in his fourth season at the helm in New York City, served as an assistant for the Lions when Coach Jones’s younger brother Joe Jones led the team from 2003 to 2010.

“I really enjoy seeing him on the sidelines,” Engles said. “It’s tough obviously when you’re competing with friends for wins, but I always enjoyed watching him. I always really respect what he does. … Joe just had a ton of energy, was always running around, where James has that older brother type feel to him where he sort of knows what’s going on. He’s got that confidence.”

Experience has helped. James Jones, the longest tenured men’s basketball coach in the Ivy League, is nearing the final month of his 21st season as head coach at Yale, which enters the weekend tied for first with Princeton and ranked 46th in all of NCAA Division I men’s basketball on the 2020 Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings (KenPom).

Although the two coaches guide teams that compete with one another at least twice a year in conference play, Engles has been close with James Jones since working under his brother. Engles and his Yale counterpart see each other on the road when recruiting each summer, Engles said, but converse less frequently during the season. Jones estimated that they now talk a little less than once a month, but never in the week leading up to a Columbia–Yale game.

“Certainly you won’t talk to any coaches [in the week before a game],” James Jones said. “Me and my brother did the same thing when he was at Columbia. We didn’t talk the week before the game. It was just something naturally that happened. He wasn’t calling me, and I wasn’t gonna call him.”

James, whose birthday was on Thursday, is a little more than a year and a half older than Joe, now the head coach at Boston University.

Engles enjoys seeing James, despite the challenge it usually entails for Columbia. He won his first game as a head coach against Yale last March, but fell to the Bulldogs, 93–62, on the last night of January.

“I think people knew how good [forward Paul] Atkinson [’21] obviously and [forward Jordan] Bruner [’20] and [guard] Azar [Swain ’21 were going to be], the depth they had on their team,” Engles said. “They sort of sacrificed a little bit for their team, and now that they’ve become the main guys on the squad, you see how talented they were … I think they’re what, top 50 in the RPI? I expected them to be good. I don’t know if I expected them to be top 50, but I think it’s a testimony to what those guys have done there.”

To maintain that ranking, Yale seeks a sweep this weekend after dominating the Tigers last Friday, but falling to Penn at The Palestra a night later.

Swain scored six three-pointers on the weekend to raise his total to 74 on the year, setting a new single-season school record for three-pointers made, all with six regular season games remaining. Atkinson logged a double-double at Penn, scoring 20 points and adding 10 rebounds. A significant milestone looms for the 6-foot-10 forward this weekend — Atkinson is 19 points away from becoming the 30th Eli to join Yale’s 1,000-point club.

But before any basketball, travel comes first. To sweep, Yale needs two wins, but it also must survive a long journey to Ithaca and a midnight ride to Morningside Heights. Yale departed New Haven Thursday night, leaving campus a little after practice for the four and a half hour trip to upstate New York. After playing Cornell Friday night, the Bulldogs will drive to New York City as soon as they can cool down and exit Newman Arena. The trip to Manhattan is about 50 miles shorter than the one from Yale to Cornell, but the Elis will not arrive in the city until around 2:30 a.m.

While players do not partake in any structured film study on the journey, captain and guard Eric Monroe ’20 said associate head coach Matt Kingsley always seems to be reviewing film with his laptop on the bus.

“I think everybody ends up just falling asleep even if you don’t plan on it,” Monroe said. “There’s just nothing to do on busses unless you want to do schoolwork, and the bus wifi is terrible. Me, I’m always like, this will be nice, I’ll be able to watch a show, listen to a podcast, and I just fall asleep. But it’s a very uncomfortable type of sleep. It’s like sleeping on an airplane where you wake up every 10 minutes.”

Finally, Saturday morning will arrive, and Yale will complete game day preparations for Columbia, either with an actual shootaround at Levien Gym or a walkthrough of plays and strategy in their hotel’s conference room.

If all goes well, Yale will exit the weekend 8–2, potentially alone in first if Princeton drops either of its games at Harvard and at Dartmouth.

The Crimson overcame 38 points — on 37 field goal attempts — from Smith last weekend to beat the Lions in double overtime, 77–73.

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu