MEN’S BASKETBALL: Coming off 350th career win, James Jones focuses on getting the next one
Yale head coach James Jones passed former Penn coach Fran Dunphy Saturday for the second most wins in Ivy League men’s basketball history, but Jones, who is preparing for Ivy Madness, said he rarely lingers too long on the big picture.
Tim Tai, Staff Photographer
James Jones, Yale’s men’s basketball head coach since 1999, ended the regular season last Saturday with a nine-point win over Brown and a pair of personal milestones.
The 74–65 victory marked Jones’ 350th career win as a head coach. It was also his 191st win in league play, pushing him past former University of Pennsylvania coach Fran Dunphy for the second-most wins in Ivy League men’s basketball history behind former Princeton coach Pete Carril, who has 310. Jones said he rarely lingers when reflecting on the big picture. But when asked to reflect on his 350 wins, he said he thinks less about the absolute number and more about the details behind it: seasons, players and great games.
“I won’t allow myself to sit and ponder too often on something I can’t control or something that doesn’t help me going forward,” Jones said. “Those thoughts are fleeting, although they do go through my mind. I deal with them when they come and toy with them for a bit and then move on.”
In some ways, Jones’ ability to compartmentalize has allowed that win count to balloon over his 23 years as head coach in New Haven. Seasons make up a coaching career, and individual games compose each season — 40-minute competitions that require scouting, film study, practice planning and the more general ability to schedule games and recruit players that put the program in a position to win. Winning each one requires a short-term focus — concentration on the details — and Jones and his players rarely, or at least try not to, think more than a game or two ahead.
That insistence on taking the season, and his coaching career, one game at a time extends to Yale’s prep for the postseason. The Elis’ year reaches a crescendo this weekend with Ivy Madness, the conference’s postseason tournament that determines the league’s automatic qualifier to March Madness. Jones said it is “almost impossible” to prepare for all three teams that No. 2 Yale (17–11, 11–3 Ivy) could potentially face in the tournament: No. 1 Princeton (22–5, 12–2), No. 3 Penn (12–15, 9–5) and No. 4 Cornell (15–10, 7–7). Instead, he and his coaching staff are almost entirely focused on the Quakers, the Bulldogs’ opponent in Saturday afternoon’s semifinal.
“What I’m trying to do right now,” he said in a Sunday interview, “is figure out what we need to do to be successful against Penn. And then I’ll throw some stuff in there just in case we need it against Cornell or Princeton.”
Jones said Richard Sauers, the former men’s basketball coach at the University at Albany whom Jones played under as a student in the early 1980s and then worked alongside when he started his career as an assistant coach in 1990, always used to say his 702 career wins simply meant he had “been around a long time.”
“[That] I’ve been able to have longevity is the biggest thing that goes along with that [350-win] number,” Jones added.
Matt Elkin, who serves as Yale’s director of basketball operations and is early in his own coaching career, said there are “a lot of numbers and facts” related to Jones’ time at Yale “that are really hard to wrap your mind around as a young coach.”
Elkin cited Jones’ consistent ability to compete in league play. The last half-decade has been the program’s most successful stretch, with the school’s first win at the NCAA Tournament in 2016 and four Ivy League titles in the last seven seasons. “I’m just proud to see them, where they are, they’re a perennial [Ivy] powerhouse now,” former center Tom Kritzer ’01 told the News in an oral history of Jones’ first season as head coach.
Despite not winning an Ancient Eight crown between 2002 and 2015, Yale finished in the top half of the league every year. The only season Jones has not finished in the top four since becoming head coach was his first year — 1999–2000, when Yale finished tied for fifth.
“You think about how tough it is to win one single game,” Elkin said. “To do that 350 times is incredible.”
Jones said he heard from several former players after Yale’s win Saturday. The program posted a graphic on social media celebrating his new spot on the Ancient Eight wins leaderboard.
Yale has had the Ivy League Player of the Year four times under Jones. Princeton forward Tosan Evbuomwan won this year’s honor, announced by the league Tuesday afternoon, while Yale guards Azar Swain ’22 and Jalen Gabbidon ’22 earned spots on the All-Ivy First and Second Teams, respectively. Yale forward EJ Jarvis ’23 was selected to this season’s Academic All-Ivy team.
Reflecting on his own former players, Jones referenced how many former Duke players attended Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game last Saturday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“I’m no Coach K, don’t take it the wrong way, but to have  of his former players back for his last game, that’s just something really special,” Jones said. “That’s kind of what this is all about … It’s about the guys you coach — that’s what makes this job fun.”
Jones, who turned 58 last month, said he has not thought about how many victories he might amass before ending his career. He won his 300th game in January 2019.
“It’d be nice one day to pass Pete Carill,” Jones said, referring to Carill’s 514 overall victories at Princeton. “The 310 [Ivy League games that Carill won] would go along with that too. It’s just going to be a little bit more difficult to get to 310 in the Ivy League than it would be overall because we only play 14 [league] games a year.”
Jones became Yale’s all-time wins leader in March 2014, when the Bulldogs beat Holy Cross to move him past former coach Joe Vancisin and his 206 wins.