Courtesy of Drew Dummer

When Yale hosted Ivy Madness, the Ivy League’s postseason basketball tournament, in March 2019, the conference hung a large green banner at the front entrance of Payne Whitney Gym: “WELCOME TO THE ULTIMATE BACK TO BACK,” it read in all capital letters. 

Back-to-back basketball games on Friday and Saturday nights have long served as a signature staple of the Ancient Eight schedule, including the newer back-to-back semi-final and championship games that constitute Ivy Madness. But this season, a new conference schedule format and postponed games due to an early January COVID-19 pause means the Yale men’s basketball team is now set to play four league games between Mondays and Thursdays. Prior to the Bulldogs’ game at Brown on Martin Luther King Jr. Day last week, the team had not faced an Ivy opponent on a weekday other than Friday since the 2004–05 season.

On Tuesday night, which is also the University’s first day of classes for the spring semester, Yale (8–9, 2–1 Ivy) hosts Columbia (4–12, 1–3) in the first of three rescheduled contests that will now occur during the middle of the week. Next month, Yale is set to play at Harvard on Wednesday, Feb. 9 and at Dartmouth on Tuesday, Feb. 22 after both games were postponed because of COVID-19 cases in the Yale program.

The weeknight contests this winter might change the cadence of the Elis’ conference season, but Yale is accustomed to playing weeknight games during the nonconference slate each year.

“We haven’t done it a lot, but it’s still just a basketball game,” Yale head coach James Jones said in an interview earlier this month after the team’s first three league games were postponed.

“Our whole season will be different from what it was before,” Jones added, referencing the Ancient Eight’s new basketball schedule format, which extends the conference season from eight to 10 weeks and reduces the number of weekends with back-to-backs from six to three. “We rarely played one game on weekends or two games in two weeks, so it’s all new.”

Yale beat Cornell on Jan. 15 in its only other Ivy League home game this season. Above, guard Eze Dike ’22 with the ball. (Tim Tai, Staff Photographer)

In an interview with the News ahead of Yale’s originally scheduled matchup with Columbia on Jan. 2, Lions head coach Jim Engles said he was a fan of the new scheduling format.

Aside from Tuesday’s contest in New Haven, which is set to tip off at 7 p.m. and will air on ESPN+, the Light Blue will play at least one more midweek game this season. A visit to Cornell postponed from MLK Day because of an impending winter storm will now take place on Wednesday, Feb. 9, the Ivy League announced on Monday afternoon.

“I think it’s healthier for the teams,” Engles said. “You know, playing back-to-backs is obviously tradition, but spreading it out a little bit more gives us more prep time and more recovery time, and I actually do like it better.”

The Bulldogs are coming off a 76–68 loss at Penn (7–12, 4–2) on Saturday. After falling into a first-half hole, Yale nearly came back in the second before late-game buckets from Penn guard Jordan Dingle sealed a Quaker win at the Palestra, which is now the site of three of Yale’s eight league losses since the 2018–19 season.

Yale’s captain, guard Jalen Gabbidon ’22, agreed with Jones on the midweek Ivy games — having participated in weekday games while class is in session during the nonconference slate, playing them in January and February will not require much of an adjustment. He also pointed out that competing in a midweek game before hitting the road again this weekend at first-place Princeton (15–3, 5–0) could help the Elis rebound from their loss at Penn.

“One of the best parts about the old Ivy schedule was that you had the opportunity to bounce back from a tough Friday game the next day,” Gabbidon said. “Our team is as hungry as ever to get back out there again on Tuesday … the best teams learn lessons quick and move on to the next one.”

Only fully-vaccinated Yale graduate and professional students, faculty and staff may attend Tuesday’s game. Yale’s Ivy opener on Jan. 15, pictured above, was held without any fan attendance. (Tim Tai, Staff Photographer)

Saturday’s game against the Tigers promises to be the most difficult on Yale’s remaining regular-season Ivy schedule, while Tuesday’s date with Columbia should be the easiest to win, according to ratings site KenPom. KenPom gives the Bulldogs a 95 percent chance to win Tuesday’s game but a 38 percent chance to defeat Princeton in New Jersey this Saturday.

Columbia, which was picked to finish last in the Ivy League’s preseason media poll and sits near the bottom of national rankings for all 358 teams in Division I men’s basketball, is the least experienced team in the Ancient Eight this season. 80 percent of its scoring from the last 2019–20 season is gone, and the team has relied on rookies to score more than 70 percent of its points this season. First-year guard Geronimo Rubio De La Rosa and sophomore forward Liam Murphy score in double figures alongside senior forward Ike Nweke, who missed most of the nonconference slate with a lower-body injury but is averaging 19.7 points per game during Ancient Eight play.

Nweke, whose younger brother Odera Nweke ’23 is a member of Yale’s track and field team, earned the Ivy League’s Player of the Week award earlier this month after scoring 22 points at Princeton and recording a double-double of 21 points and 15 rebounds in the Lions’ lone Ivy win over Penn. 

The general public is barred from attending Tuesday’s game, which is only open to fully-vaccinated Yale graduate and professional students, faculty and staff. Yale undergraduates are not permitted to attend sporting events until the resumption of in-person instruction on Feb. 7, per guidelines announced earlier in January.

Yale has won nine of the schools’ 10 last meetings, only falling in an upset by the Lions in Mar. 2019. Columbia leads the all-time series, which dates to the 1901–02 season, 126–113.

William McCormack covered Yale men's basketball from 2018 to 2022. He served as Sports Editor and Digital Editor for the Managing Board of 2022 and also reported on the athletic administration as a staff reporter. Originally from Boston, he was in Timothy Dwight College.