At last year’s “Late Night with the Phoenix,” Elon University men’s basketball coach Matt Matheny made a bold declaration.
After strutting out with women’s head coach Charlotte Smith to the popular song “One Shining Moment” — the theme song of the NCAA Tournament — Matheny took the microphone and addressed the rowdy maroon- and gold-clad supporters packed into Alumni Gym. He said it was his team’s year to win the Southern Conference and earn a bid into the NCAA tournament.
A year later, Matheny was back on the same floor with the same microphone and the same enthusiastic crowd. This time, after an 18-14 season and a loss in the first round of the SoCon Tournament, plus the loss of four of the best players the program has ever seen, Matheny avoided any such prediction.
Matheny’s theme of the night was anticipation and excitement, not only for the teams and the season but also for life in a new conference with different opponents and greater challenges on the horizon.
“It’s a great opportunity for our program and our school,” Matheny said of the CAA. “It’ll only make us better and bring our program to a completely new level.”
He was every bit as excited about this year’s team, but he didn’t make any grand statements like last year’s. Instead, he encouraged the crowd to support the team, saying their support was “more important than ever” for a roster of young, inexperienced players that would benefit greatly from an emotional boost from the home crowd.
They will need it.
The Phoenix, picked last in the CAA preseason poll, will need to replace its top three scorers from 2013-2014: Sebastian Koch, Ryley Beaumont and Lucas Troutman.
They have a solid group of veterans at the guard position in seniors Austin Hamilton and Kevin Blake, and junior Tanner Samson, but Elon will need younger players to emerge around them, particularly in the frontcourt.
“We’ll sorely miss last year’s seniors and their production,” Samson said. “But we have the guys who can fill the positions we lost and provide the production that we’ll need.”
Matheny outlined the team’s philosophy, taken from the San Antonio Spurs, which stressed the importance of “pounding the rock,” meaning practicing with relentless fire and passion with the pursuit of success in mind. When the rock does finally break, Matheny said, it would be the result of the accumulation of pounds the team has given to it over the course of the season.
The strategy, Matheny said, is a useful analogy for his team to follow in order to achieve the success they envision for themselves.
“We’re an inexperienced team in a very good league,” Matheny said. “We don’t expect to be a Final Four team today. So what we have to do is break it down incrementally and focus on climbing the mountain and pounding the rock every day.”
Smith and her team are every bit as anxious for the upcoming season as the men are, and for good reason. The Phoenix brings back most of its core from last season’s 15-16 team. Although leading scorer Kelsey Harris has graduated, Smith said the team’s experience mixed with an influx of young talent will be enough to make them a contender in the CAA.
“We’re excited about the talent we have up and down the roster,” Smith said. “If we work hard and stay focused, we can compete with anyone in the CAA.”
The night began with both teams performing a choreographed dance routine with the dance team. After a quick warm-up session, both teams played in separate 10-minute intersquad scrimmages.
Both teams then signed autographs for the Phoenix fans who stuck around until the end.
“We really enjoy interacting with the fans and having a good time and showing them what we’ve been working on and how we look,” said senior guard Austin Hamilton. “We know they appreciate it.”
Now that the lights have been turned off and the crowd has left the gym, both teams can focus on the relentless grind of season preparation.
But for one night, the players got to take a deep breath and enjoy themselves before jumping into the deep end in early November.