From the crossroads of Columbia, Mo., to the treacherous grounds of Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, I’d say the Elon University men’s basketball team passed its tests.
While there aren’t any victories from it, there’s tangible evidence of growth as the end result.
Elon trailed by 19 in the second half against the University of Missouri but put together a comeback that brought the Phoenix within one during the final minute before falling 78-73. Against second-ranked Duke University, Elon had the deficit down to single digits late in the first half and never truly let up in a 75-62 loss to the Blue Devils.
The Phoenix exhibited that its resilience built up against teams such as Morgan State University and Miami University isn’t one to look past, even when up against stiff competition in heated moments.
Possibly the clearest examples of the never-back-down attitude came against an overpowering Duke team that includes the best freshman class in the country, led by 6-foot-11 forward Jahlil Okafor. Guards Luke Eddy, Collin Luther and Tanner Samson were among players who willingly took to the post to try and contain Okafor, who ended up ripping Elon for 25 points and 20 rebounds.
With starting forward Ryan Winters out, those guards along with 6-foot-7 Christian Hairston consistently maintained a presence underneath against Okafor, the reigning High School National Player of the Year.
And if they’re not scared to go up against that hulk of a human being, there probably isn’t much they are afraid of.
“I love coaching our team,” Elon coach Matt Matheny said. “We’ve got some really tough kids, some really competitive kids. We make some of the silliest mistakes, but we keep fighting.”
Said Eddy: “I was fighting my hardest, he’s just bigger.”
When Hairston was asked about it, he said he “doesn’t mind it,” and that he’s been facing stern tests since his AAU days. Duke’s probably the most challenging team Elon will face this season, unless a trip to the NCAA Tournament ends up being in the cards. And even then, the Blue Devils still might hold that title.
So there has to be a good grasp on the identity of this team at the current juncture of the season.
And that will continue to test the Phoenix, with matchups awaiting against the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Kennesaw State University and Marist College, three teams nowhere near the level of Duke, but all capable of pushing Elon to the limit.
But the toughness and willingness to fight is what’s carrying Elon right now, and Matheny knows it.
“That comes from our players,” Matheny said. “We’re calcifying. I think there’s a calcification, a toughness developing. The credit goes to our players for the way they (have) thawed out.”
Records and numbers aside, this youthful Elon team is in a good spot for how much adjustment Matheny thought there’d be to start the season. And just like he says the resilience comes from the players, it’s up to them whether it will continue.