This could very well be one of James Jones' best coaching jobs at Yale.
Yale lost three starters from a team that reached the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time in 54 years, winning a game for the first time in history. Then the Bulldogs lost one of best guards in the country a week before the season when Makai Mason broke a foot. Still, the Bulldogs will be one of four teams participating in the inaugural Ivy League tournament this weekend at the Palestra in Philadelphia.
The tournament has been a long time coming. The Ivy League was the last Division I conference to have its tournament champion receive the automatic bid to the NCAAs. The regular season champion had received the bid.
Second-seeded Harvard (18-9, 10-4 Ivy), which swept No. 3 Yale (17-10, 9-5) in a pair of turnover-laden games for the Bulldogs, will meet Saturday at 4 p.m. The teams, rivals in everything, met in a one-game playoff for the right to go to the NCAA Tournament in 2015, also at the Palestra. Harvard won 53-51.
"I think you look at the things you did positively in the games and you try to take those with you, and also look at things that were negative you try to get better at," said Jones, in his 18th season and the Ivy League coach of the year in 2015 and 2016.
The Bulldogs defended well in the first half of both games this season against Harvard and led at the break in each. Their youth also showed in turning the ball over 12 and 17 times respectively in a 75-67 loss at Lee Amphitheater in New Haven on Feb.11 and in a 77-64 loss 13 days later in Cambridge, Mass., where the Bulldogs were run out of Lavietes Pavilion in the second half.
The league was tough this year. The Bulldogs lost the three starters from a team that beat Baylor (79-75) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season and lost to Duke (71-64) in the second round. Losing Mason for the season meant the Bulldogs would be without their first-team all-Ivy pick and his leadership presence.
Still, Yale won an early matchup at Washington (98-90) and had one of the longest home winning streaks in the nation dating to last season before Harvard snapped it at 22 games. The Bulldogs would lose their next three.
And while players have stepped up, including freshman Miye Oni (13.0 points), a second-team All-Ivy pick; and sophomore Alex Copeland (12.9), Yale has missed Mason's ability to score (16 points), create (3.8 assists) and take care of the ball. Yale was sixth in the eight-team conference with 14 turnovers a game.
"You've got the player of the year candidate coming into the season," Jones said. "Makai is a special player and he's able to do some game-changing things, certainly, but if you dwell on that stuff it keeps you from making the guys that you have in your program — [senior captain] Anthony Dallier, Alex Copeland, [freshman guard] Eric Monroe, all guys who have shared that position — it takes away from their development. So we try to just focus on what we have. We know Makai will be back next year and we'll be happy to have him."
Crawford's Big Moment
Iona freshman EJ Crawford has always had the ability to put the ball in the basket in some of the most ridiculous ways.
His left-handed, acrobatic flip in traffic against Siena in the championship game of the MAAC Tournament Monday night in Albany was just the latest in a string of beauties he has displayed throughout his career, but this one was a tiebreaking field goal in overtime with 27 seconds left and helped the Gaels to an 87-86 win and a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
"They gave me the lane and I took it," Crawford said. "As a team we had been through so many ups and downs. For us to get that 'W' and go to the tournament is just great. To do it my first year is even better."
The season has been quite a ride for the 6-6 Crawford, who attended Simsbury High, then St. Thomas More and is the son of Eric Crawford, who played at the University of Hartford in the 1980s. Named to the MAAC's all-rookie team, Crawford averaged 9.4 points and 3.1 rebounds in 26 starts. He was third in the conference in three-point shooting percentage (44.7).
"My father always told me, 'You have to get better, you have to get faster and you have to get quicker,'" Crawford said. "And the players here, they're always looking to get better, so that works for me."
His goals on the court are clear.
"I want to go to the tournament as much as possible and win games, that's the No.1 goal," Crawford said. "Personally, I want to make the first or second team [all-conference], reach 1,000 points, but mostly keep improving as a player."
Next At Quinnipiac
Here's to hoping Tom Moore lands on his feet after Quinnipiac fired him following 10 seasons. Quinnipiac won 20 or more games in a season three times under Moore but went just 19-42 the past two, including 13-27 in the MAAC. His record with the Bobcats was 162-146. Anybody who knows Moore knows he is as classy as they come. The school will do a national search for Moore's replacement and has hired Chicago-based DHR International to assist. Who has a chance? Well, first-year athletic director Greg Amodio came over from Duquesne. You have to believe he has a list of names of coaches at that level. Moore was believed to be making between $450,000-475,000 per year, which was one of the higher salaries in the MAAC.
There are other routes to go, such as Iona associate head coach Jared Grasso, a 2002 Quinnipiac graduate and assistant coach there as well as Hartford, and in the mix for the Central job that went to Donyell Marshall. And how about Hamden native, former UConn player, Quinnipiac assistant and current Southern Connecticut coach Scott Burrell?