Yale men ‘happy, excited’ to be back playing: ‘It’s amazing the joy on the kids’ faces’

It was evident from the first minute of team workouts in early September that the Yale men’s basketball team was ecstatic to be back together again.

“I gotta tell you, it’s amazing the joy you saw in the kids’ faces,” coach James Jones said. “They were all happy and excited. It was just really good.”

Not entirely surprising, considering that the Ivy League canceled its entire 2020-21 athletics slate due to the pandemic, leaving Yale and its fellow Ancient Eight brethren among the few college basketball teams in the country without a season.

Instead, 10 players opted out of school last year, allowing them a season of eligibility later in their careers. The team stayed connected throughout, largely via Zoom calls coordinated by captain Jalen Gabbidon that focused on issues beyond basketball: equity, inclusion, trying to understand each others’ differences.

“Anytime you do stuff like that,” Jones noted, “you get tighter and closer. The tighter and closer you are, the better you should play.”

Now, the Bulldogs are back on the floor together, picked by the league’s coaches to win the Ivy League and finish among the league’s top four — the benchmark to qualify for the Ivy tournament — for a remarkable 21st straight season.

Of course, with more than 18 months since the league’s last games, it’ll be hard to predict anything for this season.

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“I know my team,” said Jones, entering his 23rd year at the Bulldogs’ helm, “but all these other rosters, I don’t know any of these guys. There’s two years of guys who I haven’t seen play yet.”

Yale’s roster will be as familiar as any in the Ivy. Only two players who could have come back to play for the Bulldogs this season are gone — Paul Atkinson and Wyatt Yess. Atkinson, the 2020 Ivy Player of the Year who opted to play a graduate season at Notre Dame, is a big loss. But Yale has plenty of experience returning.

Azar Swain, the team’s second-leading scorer in 2019-20 and a first-team all-Ivy selection, is back as a dead-eye shooter and team leader. He’s joined by Gabbidon, the league’s 2019-20 co-Defensive Player of the Year, still the team’s captain and a young man with a bright future ahead beyond basketball.

“He’s a special kid, in a lot of ways,” Jones said of the 6-foot-5 senior.

Jones expects leadership from seniors Eze Dike and Jameel Alausa, the latter of whom could emerge as an under-the-radar contributor, along with 6-8 junior EJ Jarvis.

“One of those guys have to develop for us to have a presence in the post,” Jones said.

Matthue Cotton, a 6-5 junior who averaged 7.6 points per game two seasons ago, should also be a key contributor. Otherwise, there are plenty of question marks and unknowns. After all, none of the sophomores or freshmen have played a single second of college basketball. That doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of talent in that group.

Yussif Basa-Ama, a 6-8 sophomore, was a Florida Mr. Basketball finalist two years ago and one of the few frosh last spring who was able to get on the court for workouts with veterans like Atkinson and Yess. He’s been banged up a bit in the preseason but could make an immediate impact.

Fellow sophomores August Mahoney, a prep teammate of UConn soph Andre Jackson, and Matt Knowling, the 2020 GameTimeCT Player of the Year from East Catholic, should also contribute.

“Tough, hard-nosed kid,” Jones said of the 6-5 Knowling. “Knows how to play, really good passer, great feel for game. I really like what brings to table.”

While there are always question marks when it comes to freshmen, it’s never been more evident than this year. Greenwich’s Jack Molloy grew two inches, from 6-6 to 6-8, since the last time Jones had seen him. And the coach has never seen frosh Bez Mbeng or John Poulakidas play live in a game.

In fact, he had never even met Mbeng in-person before he arrived on campus in September.

As usual, the Bulldogs have assembled a tough non-league schedule that includes trips to Seton Hall, Auburn and Saint Mary’s and features a bout with Rick Pitino’s Iona at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Jones, the longest tenured coach in the Ivy and, with 333 wins, the league’s second all-time winningest coach, has seen it all over the years. He spent part of this summer in Latvia as an assistant with the U19 national team, led by the No. 1 recruit in the country, Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren.

But he couldn’t be happier back coaching his players at Yale. And his players couldn’t be happier to be back.

david.borges@hearstmediact.com