NEW YORK — James Jones has been coaching at Yale for 20 seasons, but despite all of his success, it’s rare to have a team like this one. The Bulldogs currently lead the Ivy League standings at 7-1 on the season and have a softer schedule down the stretch with four homes games followed by a final weekend at Penn and Princeton.
Considering that the Ivy League playoff has been moved to the friendly confines of the 3,522-seat Lee Amphitheater this season, it’s easy to see why the Bulldogs are considered the favorite to grab the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
After leading by as many as 18 points midway through the second half, Yale held on for a 70-64 victory over Columbia on Friday night and in the process showed off many of the strengths that make them special.
The first is 6-foot-6 junior swingman Miye Oni. Projected by ESPN as the 50th-best player in the NBA Draft, Oni is not just one of the best players in the Ivy League, but in the entire country. He brings NBA scouts to Yale games and there they get to see his unique blend of shooting, passing, and defense that makes him one of the best pro prospects in college basketball. Oni struggled a little bit shooting the ball on Friday night, going 7-17 from the field and scoring 20 points, but contributed in a big way on the defensive end. Oni’s block of Gabe Stefanini with 49 seconds remaining in a two-point game sealed the victory for the Bulldogs.
“He’s a special player,” Columbia head coach Jim Engles said about Oni. “He’s got a lot of ability on both sides of the ball. Obviously he was a big focal point for us coming into the game, but great players like that can have an affect on both ends.”
Oni is shooting 38 percent from three on the season and is the number one focus of any Ivy team’s defensive scout. How the offense revolves around his talent is further demonstrated by the Bulldogs being nearly 46 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the court versus off of it during Ivy League play. Oni scored just 11 points in 30 minutes in Yale’s only Ivy League loss at Harvard.
But the star junior is not the only player making a big difference. One of the best attributes of the Bulldogs is the talent they possess throughout the rotation.
“We have so many weapons,” said Yale senior guard Alex Copeland. “I think having the talent that we have it’s so hard to lock in on one guy.”
Nowhere is that more apparent than the play of sophomore forward Paul Atkinson.
Atkinson was forced to play more than expected last season after Jordan Bruner went down with a season-ending knee injury before playing a single minute. The 6-foot-10 forward thrived in his first season in New Haven, scoring 9.3 points per game. Now that Bruner has returned, Atkinson is coming off the bench and scoring 10.3 points per game this season, despite playing nearly four fewer minutes per game. On a rate basis, Atkinson is one of the best rebounders in the Ivy League. Atkinson’s split stats are nearly as impressive as Oni’s. That Jones can deploy him off the bench gives Yale a big advantage in the second unit.
Jones has also embraced his talented roster by encouraging his team to play at a pace not seen since his earliest days at Yale near the beginning of the century.
“My message is that I’m trying to get out of their way,” Jones said. “They’re a really good bunch of players and they understand what to do and what needs to be done.”
The Bulldogs rank 43rd in pace this season. Trey Phills, Copeland, Azar Swain, Eric Monroe, and Oni play an attacking style in the backcourt that leads to many fast opportunities.
“I feel like our defense really gets us going and as we get stops we can get out in transition and play fast,” Oni said.
The fast-paced style has also led to Yale’s biggest weakness on the offensive end: turnovers. The Bulldogs rank second-to-last in the Ivy League in turnover percentage during conference play, giving the ball away on nearly a fifth of their offensive possessions. They make up for it by being the second-best shooting team in the Ivy and rebounding 26 percent of their misses.
It helps that Copeland and Phills provide a veteran backcourt for key moments. Copeland is the team’s second-leading scorer at 14.3 ppg in conference play. Against Columbia, he got the big baskets to make sure his teammates didn’t give the game away at the end.
“My guys are just always building me up and giving me confidence,” Copeland said. “I’ve had some tough games this year and guys and Miye especially will come up to me and say, ‘Hey man keep shooting, keep being aggressive,’ and that means the world.”
Jones has not finished outside of the top four in the Ivy League since his first season in charge of the Bulldogs back in 1999-00. Despite all of that success, the Bulldogs have only gone to the NCAA Tournament once during his tenure, in 2016. This team has a great chance to be the second.