Tim Tai, Staff Photographer

As Yale men’s basketball prepares to host Columbia Sunday afternoon to open Ivy League play, there are the usual batch of basketball questions that accompany the start of the conference slate every winter.

Can Yale (6–8, 0–0 Ivy), picked to finish first in the conference, capture its third straight Ancient Eight title? Will Bulldog forward EJ Jarvis ’23 return to the floor after missing most of the nonconference schedule with injuries? Is this the year Brown (8–7, 0–0), currently ranked third among Ivy squads on the 2022 Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings (KenPom), makes its first Ivy Madness appearance? And just how good is Cornell (8–3, 0–0), an offensively powered team that recorded its best start to a season in half a century but against a weaker-than-average schedule?

In this college basketball season of COVID-19 game cancellations and health protocols, an extra strain of off-court questions also loom: will fans return to Ivy League gyms, and how might their absence from some venues influence home-court advantage? How many games will take place as scheduled? Will the league have to declare any “no contests?” At the core of them all, a question nearly impossible to answer: how will the state of the pandemic develop?

Ahead of their Ivy opener Sunday, the Bulldogs have likely tried to boil down the questions — big and small, on court and off court — into one focus, their opponent Columbia (3–9, 0–0 Ivy). Yale is heavily favored against a young Lions team, which KenPom ranks 347th out of 358 NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams as of Friday afternoon. But the Elis, which sit at KenPom No. 157, are not taking their first league contest lightly.

“Every team in the Ivy League is capable so we just have to stick to the game plan our coaches give us and come together as a team,” guard August Mahoney ’24 said. “We have to play Yale basketball for a full 40 minutes.”

The Bulldogs’ John J. Lee Amphitheater will be quiet for the opener — fans are not permitted to attend the game (or any of Yale’s home athletic contests through Jan. 6) as the Omicron variant drives a spike in cases in Connecticut and across the U.S. ESPN+ and NESN+ will broadcast the contest.

With the earliest tipoff time in the conference at noon, Yale’s game vs. Columbia will mark the first minutes of Ivy League basketball action in 666 days. All 16 Ivy League men’s and women’s basketball teams were set to begin their conference schedules Sunday, but one game was postponed Friday afternoon due to COVID-19 protocols within the Harvard men’s basketball program. Princeton will now visit Harvard Feb. 27 instead of this Sunday.

“[The pandemic’s] hard to ignore, but I think the big thing for us is really staying present. You really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Columbia head coach Jim Engles said in a phone interview with the News Friday afternoon. “So it’s not really worrying about what’s happening next. It’s just hopefully having the opportunity to compete that day. If something happens where games get canceled or the schedule gets a little screwed up, we’ll have to deal with it as we go through it.”

Columbia entered the year having lost 80 percent of its scoring from the 2019–20 season and has leaned on first years and sophomores without any previous college experience in its first twelve games. Among players who have appeared in at least five games, sophomore forward Liam Murphy and first-year guard Geronimo Rubio De La Rosa lead the team in scoring with 12.9 and 12.7 points per game. Engles said the team has “battled inconsistency” during nonconference games because of its lack of experience — the Lions’ roster only averages 1.14 years of college experience, according to KenPom, the lowest in the Ancient Eight.

Senior captain and forward Ike Nweke missed nine games after suffering a lower-body injury during the Lions’ season opener at Fordham. Nweke has averaged 17.5 points a game in the two full games he has played since returning: a one-point loss at Albany, whom the Bulldogs beat by 19 in early December, and a ten-point defeat vs. Sacred Heart.

“He’s really our only experienced player,” Engles said of Nweke. “He’s played in games before, he’s played in conference games. He’s obviously physically mature, he’s mentally been through college basketball, so just having him out of the court helps us compete.”

The Lions upset Yale at home during the 2018–19 season, defeating a Yale team ranked 145 KenPom spots higher by a score of 83–75 in March 2019. But when Columbia last visited JLA in Jan. 2020, Yale won in a 93–62 trouncing, a 31-point win that marked the Elis’ largest margin of victory against an Ivy League opponent since 2012.

Engles said Yale’s recent tradition and experience have stood out as Columbia prepares for the game. Under head coach James Jones, the Bulldogs have finished fourth or better in the Ivy League for 20 consecutive years.

“They’ve been through all this stuff,” Engles said. “They have a bunch of guys who played in the league, who understand, who have won championships, and it’s going to be a big step for us to play against these guys on Sunday.”

Now at the halfway point of its regular season, Yale enters Ivy play with a losing record for the first time since 2017–18, when the Bulldogs started the conference slate at 7–9 against Brown. But the Bulldogs have an opportunity to set a winning tone for the second half of the season on Sunday. A win over the Light Blue would snap the Elis’ three-game losing streak, its longest since falling to St. Bonaventure, Iona and Monmouth during that same season in Dec. 2017. Yale enters the new year having dropped its most recent games to Iona, Monmouth and St. Mary’s.

In the 87–60 loss at St. Mary’s (12–3, 0–0 WCC) Tuesday night in California, rookie forward Matt Knowling ’24 and first-year guard Bez Mbeng ’25 each made their first career starts, while typical starters and guards Matthue Cotton ’23 and Eze Dike ’22 came off the bench. Knowling scored a career-high 12 points on five-of-seven shooting. Guard Azar Swain ’22, whose 19.4 points per game rank second in the conference, led Yale with 21 points.

“Coach always says be ready when your opportunity comes,” Knowling said. “The nonconference schedule was good for me to get my feet wet and get used to the college game — the speed, the physicality of it — and now I feel like I’m more prepared for the Ivy League season.”

After the team’s loss to Monmouth during reading week, Swain, who broke the school record for career three-pointers during that game, said “we haven’t played our best basketball yet.” Jones and Dike concurred. Jones, now in his 22nd second as head coach, typically emphasizes defense, rebounding and sharing the ball, but Yale’s statistics in each of those categories this season are only average. The Elis are averaging a rebounding margin of -3.0 and 12.9 assists per game, which respectively rank sixth and fifth in the Ancient Eight. Yale’s adjusted defensive efficiency, which captures how many points a team allows for every 100 opponent possessions, is 102.6 and third best in the Ivy, according to KenPom.

Nonconference records and statistics alone do not tell the full story. The NCAA’s NET ranking considers Yale’s nonconference schedule to be the second strongest in the conference after Penn’s, while KenPom rates Yale’s nonconference schedule the third most difficult in the league behind Penn’s and Dartmouth’s. The Elis’ eight losses have come to teams that own a combined record of 78–24 as of Friday afternoon.

Yale is one of four teams, along with Brown, Dartmouth and Princeton, that enter league play with a Quadrant 3 win, which the NCAA defines as home victories against opponents ranked between 76 and 160 in the NET, neutral-site matches with teams ranked 101 to 200 or away games vs. squads ranked 135 to 240.

Ivy League teams are 0–28 in Quadrant 1 and 2 games this season.

William McCormack covers Yale men's basketball. He previously served as a Sports and Digital Editor for the Yale Daily News and also reported on the athletic administration as a staff reporter. Originally from Boston, he is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.