Yale men’s basketball’s rotation unsettled after OT-game-splitting Canada trip

MONCTON, New Brunswick – This ain’t James Jones’ first rodeo.

It’s also not the first time around for the majority of the players in his regular 2023-24 rotation, which is why Yale was picked nearly unanimously to win the Ivy League this season, despite Princeton going to the Sweet 16 last March.

The Bulldogs reached as high as No. 55 in KenPom after destroying Colgate Friday night at Avenir Arena north of the border. But Yale followed it up with a couple of lackluster performances, having a late comeback come up short in an overtime loss to Weber State Saturday, and then blowing an 18-point lead against Gardner-Webb Sunday, although they pulled out the game out 71-70 in overtime.

Although still 4-2 (with one of those losses at Gonzaga), Yale has dropped to No. 76 in KenPom, five lower than where they started the campaign, and nine spots behind Princeton, which has started impressively.

It’s Jones’ 24th rodeo with Yale to be exact (maybe 25, the 2020-21 “season” gets a little murky around here), and he has seen a lot of things. He’s not worried.

“I’m not sure where the hype train is coming from for us,” Jones said. ”I don’t see it the way others do. I know how I feel about my team, but it’s not like we’re a top-25 team right now or anything like that. We were picked to win our league, and I think that makes sense because of the number of guys we have back that scored in double figures and are really good players. We feel really good about who we are, but my biggest thing is to improve every day and every game, and we’ll see where we end up.”

While it’s likely common knowledge to anyone reading this, it’s worth repeating Jones’ accolades, of course being second in career Ivy wins behind Pete Carril, but also having just one losing record in Ivy League play in the last 23 seasons and finishing in the top half of the league in every season since 2000-01, all at a place which saw mostly losing records in the decades before he arrived.

When other coaches say they don’t pay attention to rankings and polls, it’s quite easy to call their bluff, but Jones is sincere. As good as Yale plays, it’s not going to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament (I mean they could beat Gonzaga and Kansas on the road, but you know). Jones also knows returning a lot of players is no guarantee of success, and not having graduated big men EJ Jarvis and Isaiah Kelly has him left with Danny Wolf and some unknowns in the middle.

But what has separated Jones and his staff from others over the years is their ability to figure it out. Last year’s team finished 50th nationally in defensive efficiency (and best in Ivy) because they were 11th in defensive rebounding and 22nd in two-point defense. Without Jarvis and Kelly, most of the minutes will fall to Wolf, a sophomore who played just 11% of minutes last season, but Wolf has responded early and won MVP of the Atlantic Slam.

“Danny was tremendous,” Jones said. “He played his guts out until the very end.”

”I think that it comes down to toughness. We have a veteran group. A collective toughness,” Wolf said.

Who will be Wolf’s backup (and help Matt Knowling) is still an open question. Yale does not depend on freshmen as much as some, but it is either going to be freshman Samson Aletan or sophomore Nick Townsend. Townsend (6’7”) and Knowling (6’6”) are both undersized, although that should be less of a problem in the Ivy League than it has been so far against a very tough non-conference schedule that still has Rhode Island, Vermont, Kansas and Santa Clara left, all away.

Jones is still trying to find a way to get Northwestern transfer Casey Simmons some more minutes. Simmons is extremely athletic and active on defense, but hasn’t shown he can score consistently yet which puts him in the same category as junior guard Yassine Gharram, another excellent defender, but Gharram has reached double figures in scoring only once in his college career.

“I’m still trying to figure some stuff out,” Jones said. “I think I have some guys on the bench that I just have to get some confidence in so they can help us more and we just have to find a way to do that.”

Another thing Jones can point to that should improve are slow starts from Bez Mbeng and Knowling, both first-time all-Ivy selections last season. Mbeng’s defense will be there every night, but he was just 1-of-15 from three-point range at the Atlantic Slam with opponents basically daring him to shoot from outside. Knowling is shooting 48.2% from the field, but that’s coming off back-to-back seasons at 60%. Teams are doing a better job taking away his left hand and allowing him to shoot outside of 12 to 15 feet.

August Mahoney and John Poulakidas are lethal shooters, but are now the focal point of the offense, which comes with pressure of its own, and will be counted on to help on the defensive glass. Currently after Wolf, the second-leading rebounder is Mbeng, who had 23 defensive boards in three games in Canada.

There was one thing Jones was worried about after the Weber State loss, however, especially from his leaders. He knows the key to success year after year has a lot to do with the mental game and this is the time of year where he needs to hone that as well.

“I thought some of our demons showed up tonight, and we didn’t play through some stuff that we’re going to need to play through,” Jones said after the loss. “They did some things defensively and took some things away and instead of going to the next thing, we kind of sulked and didn’t step up.”

The road to the Ivy League Tournament looks like it could be tougher than usual with Princeton, Cornell threatening to break into the top 100 in KenPom, Malik Mack looking like a star at Harvard, and Penn having knocked off Villanova (and then losing to Maryland Eastern Shore, however the point remains).

But if you’re trying to make a case that this is the season that Yale won’t qualify for the first time ever? Good luck. It’s not James Jones’ first rodeo, after all.

Richard Kent contributed to this story.