AVON — Here was a group of men’s college basketball coaches, discussing, commiserating about the new world into which they have been thrust. They must build a new roster each year with players coming and going, consider name-image-likeness income in recruiting, and scheduling, adapt their methods to the times.
And then there was James Jones, the coach at Yale.
“What’s ‘the portal?’” he asked, flashing his droll sense of humor for an audience. “We don’t have guys entering the portal unless they graduate, so the changes in college basketball have not affected Yale basketball whatsoever. I’m very fortunate to be at Yale, if you go there, and you’re going to leave, where are you going to go?”
What about NIL? The Ivy League’s need-based financial aid makes that moot, too.
“Because if you pay at all to go to Yale, and you get an NIL deal, they just take that money off the top,” Jones said. “If Yale gives you $20,000 and you make $10,000 with NOL, Yale is only going to give you $10,000 now.”
Perhaps these things make Jones’ life a little less complicated than the state’s other Division I coaches, who joined him at the Connecticut Coaches’ Tip-off Breakfast this week at the Golf Club of Avon. But the need to win is no less acute, and Jones, 58, Yale’s coach since 1999, has been won with little disruption — with five Ivy regular season and two league tournament titles, three trips to the NCAA Tournament. In 2022, the Bulldogs lost in the Round of 64 to Purdue.
“He’s the most underappreciated coach in the country,” said ESPN’s Seth Greenberg, host of this annual event that raises funds for the Jimmy V Foundation and its cancer research, in presenting Jones its Connecticut Coach of the Year award.
Yale pulled one March stunner, beating Baylor in 2016 before throwing a scare into Duke in the Round of 32. The winningest coach in Yale history could soon have a new weapon in his disposal, something that would make the Ivy League champ less of an underdog in The Big Dance: athletic scholarships.
“Obviously, it would be a game-changer in lots of different ways,” Jones said. “For our student-athletes and families who would otherwise not be able to afford it, and it would be a great opportunity for us to be able to offer a player at a little bit higher level. If the Ivy League had scholarships, it would really change the level of play.”
It could happen, though maybe not tomorrow, because the anti-trust exemption, part of the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994 was allowed by congress to expire on Sept. 30. The expiration of the exemption could leave the Ivy League vulnerable to lawsuits tied to prohibiting athletic scholarships and force changes in policies that have existed since the 1950s.
“I don’t know that [the recruiting pitch] would be much different,” Jones said. “There are some kids we have now that because of where they are financially, they go to school for free. But it’s another thing to offer a young man a scholarship, and his family. You’re getting the best education in the world for free, you can’t beat that with a stick.”
Even without that tool in his toolbox, Jones has been finding talented players suitable for Yale, including Miye Oni, who has played in the NBA. Other former Yale stars, unable to play a fifth year in New Haven due to Ivy League restrictions, have gone on to play as transfers at major colleges.
This season, Yale has to replace two critical members of its 2021-22 backcourt, Azar Swain and Jalen Gabbidon and was picked third, behind Penn and Princeton and ahead of Harvard in the league’s preseason poll. But the voting was close, suggesting a regular season up for grabs and any slot in the four-team Ivy Tournament could be a winner.
Matt Knowling, the 6-foot-6 junior from Ellington and East Catholic, played in 31 games, started 18 and made the All-Ivy tournament team. He shot 61.9 percent from the floor in league games, and figures to be a glue guy from the start of this season.
“We’ve got a lot of guys back from last year,” Jones said. “It’s been sort of seamless, putting things in as opposed to last year, because we had so many new guys. That gives me reason to feel good. We’ve got Matt Knowling playing really well, and I think he’s going to take a step forward, and a bunch of our guys are playing so much better, especially the sophomore class.”
Yale’s eclectic nonconference schedule starts with Division III Sarah Lawrence College on Nov. 7, followed by three games in at the Outrigger Rainbow Classic in Hawaii, against Eastern Washington, Mississippi Valley State and Hawaii. The Bulldogs play at Butler and Kentucky in December, before Ivy League play starts at Columbia on New Year’s Eve.
Jones, three time Ivy coach of the year, knows how to navigate what comes onto his plate. He would appear long overdue for a higher profile job, but whatever the offers, he has stayed to maintain the program he has built. He says he plans to coach another 10 years.
“Everybody has issues wherever they are,” he said. “We have things at Yale that makes our job difficult, and things at UConn that make that job difficult. I’m happy to be where I am, I’m kind of an in-the-moment kind of person anyway, you’ve got to live in the day, live in the moment. I’m happy where I’m at.”
Dom Amore can be reached at email@example.com