With a cyclonic ending still on his mind, Elon University men’s basketball coach Matt Matheny chose to start his press conference by talking about the Colonial Athletic Association.
Elon had just been handed its third straight loss in the CAA, a 75-72 defeat to James Madison University in which senior guard Austin Hamilton’s 3-pointer missed right before the final buzzer.
Instead of talking about that play, Matheny focused on the conference, in which it’s clear Elon is still adjusting. There’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s nothing unexpected.
“We are faced with competing in the [CAA], which is brand new to us,” Matheny said. “We’re finding out very, very quickly what we anticipated — that there’s a lot of good teams in this league and a lot of good coaches in this league.”
James Madison attacked Elon with a zone defense, something Elon has rarely seen. It forced the Phoenix to either fire up 3-pointers — which were pretty well contested — or go for mid-range jumpers of which Elon made just one of all night.
Elon’s post players, mainly senior Ryan Winters and junior Tony Sabato, would get the ball near the free throw line with room to make a play. But the two combined for just nine points, furthering what’s been a tough season for Elon’s forwards.
The James Madison loss came on the heels of flattening home defeats to Hofstra University and College of Charleston. The Phoenix is 2-4 overall in CAA play.
Not to say that victories against Drexel University and the College of William & Mary were misleading, but Elon shot the ball extremely well both games. The Phoenix has shown it can overcome big deficits — Elon trailed James Madison by 10 with less than five minutes to play before cutting it to one in the final minute — but it has to learn how to win without having its best offensive night.
It’s no secret that Elon relies on the 3-pointer, and junior Tanner Samson is the main culprit of that. He averages 12.5 points per game and attempts more than eight 3-pointers per contest. In fact, he’s so locked in on shooting 3s that he’s shooting 36.7 percent from long range but 21 percent from the rest of the field.
So when Samson struggles like he did against Hofstra (eight points) and College of Charleston (none), Elon needs a backup plan. It’s a similar situation with freshman guard Elijah Bryant, who averaged 28.2 points in Elon’s two CAA victories but has averaged 11.8 in the four losses while shooting a dismal 28.5 percent.
“[Bryant and Samson] are a huge part of our offense,” Sabato said. “I wouldn’t say we tend to struggle when they struggle. They’ll continue to shoot the ball and bounce back.”
The uniqueness of James Madison’s zone was something Elon wasn’t used to, but it’s only a precursor of what’s to come for the rest of the CAA slate. Every game, the Phoenix is facing a team it doesn’t know much about.
“It’s a different style of play we’re not familiar with,” Matheny said. “I think that’s one of the most difficult things for us is not knowing these things. It’s tough, and it’s every night. That’s difficult.”
Even though the Phoenix is six games into league play, the adjustment won’t end anytime soon. That’s why finding some sort of offensive rhythm will help.
As his opening statement after the James Madison loss showed, Matheny has the process at the forefront of his mind. But for now, there’s no need for panic.