The Elon University men’s basketball team is in the middle of roster turnover, with five freshmen joining the already young group. With so many new faces, getting players to gel together was going to be quite the challenge for head coach Matt Matheny.
But, according to Matheny, the study abroad trip the team took to Europe in August has made their chemistry better than ever before.
“I think it’s at an all-time high,” Matheny said. “The opportunity to travel abroad and to do it in a time when you’re not in the regular season and you’re not taking exams every other day, to be relaxed and see things and open up was great for our team.”
The collective understanding of each other is something that sophomore guard Dmitri Thompson considers a strength of the team.
“Being able to go to Europe, that boosted [the chemistry] up a lot,” Thompson said. “Everyone on the team just has this connection with every guy, it’s amazing. It’s better than last year, and we had great chemistry last year.”
The time overseas together has led junior guard Christian Hairston to believe the jump-start has had a positive benefit in practice.
“I think it’s been going really well — out of my three years here, we are the furthest along in terms of practice,” Hairston said. “The amount of time we spent working in the summer, with the Europe trip and being here for the summer months, that definitely helped us out also.”
Mixing new with old
The five freshmen — guards Dainan Swoope, Steven Santa Ana and Sheldon Eberhardt and forwards Tyler Seibring and Karolis Kundrotas — went to Europe and got a chance to play for Elon while there. Afterward, Matheny praised the five newcomers.
“We’re excited about the talent in the class,” Matheny said. “We’re excited about the coachability in the class. And we’re really excited about how hard they’re working. I think all five have a chance to earn playing time this year.”
The experience in Europe included two games in Germany, one in Austria and two in Italy. All five freshmen got opportunities to suit up for the Phoenix in the overseas games, giving them ample opportunities to develop cohesion with the returners.
In Elon’s 90-73 exhibition win over William Peace University Nov. 5, Swoope led Elon in scoring with 23 points. Running mainly at point guard, Swoope had made strides so far in practice.
“Dainan has been playing really well at point guard,” said senior guard Tanner Samson. “He’s run the offense and it fits him really well.”
Another guard singled out the three freshmen guards as suitable for Elon and its offensive identity.
“Dainan Swoope is a good ballhandler, he distributes the ball well,” Thompson said. “Steven [Santa Ana] can shoot the lights out of the ball, and so can Sheldon [Eberhardt]. They fit the mold of the Elon system perfectly.”
Another freshman who shined in the exhibition was Seibring, tallying 11 points and eight rebounds. Multiple players have praised his shooting prowess as a forward, as well as teammate Kundrotas’ shooting capabilities.
“Tyler Seibring can really shoot the ball, and we saw that from day one,” Hairston said. “And Karolis can shoot the ball also, not to leave him out, but Tyler can really shoot.”
One player in particular really enjoys what Seibring brings to Elon.
“I love Tyler Seibring — he’s probably my favorite player on the team,” Eddy said. “If his big man helps, that’s three points right there. We lacked that last year, and now we have that. He’s gonna make a big impact. We can get three points in five seconds, so that’s what we’re gonna do every single time.”
Matheny has noticed Seibring’s unique abilities and the challenges he can present to other teams.
“The fact that he can really shoot and that he passes and catches well makes him a pretty versatile player, which I think helps our offense and is tough to guard.”
Enjoying each other’s company
With an increased amount of time spent between new freshmen and the upperclassmen, Hairston has noticed is already a big difference from last year’s team to this year.
“I think, with this year’s team, our chemistry is much tighter,” Hairston said. “Coach has mentioned that a couple of times, and the summer we spent definitely helped out with that. These guys, we love each other, we hang out all of the time, about eight of us live in the same building.”
Matheny is encouraged by the eight roommates and the general closeness of the team.
“Our guys like each other, they like hanging out together, they know more about each other,” Matheny said. “Our team chemistry is really good.”
The stronger chemistry can all still be traced back to a common point: Europe.
“Everybody likes each other,” Eddy said. “We’re all boys — we all hang out with each other a lot more than we did in the past, and I think Europe has a lot to do with that.”