After Feb. 25’s home loss to the College of William & Mary, a close game that left the Elon University men’s basketball team believing they could have won, head coach Matt Matheny shook his head in disbelief.
It was the sixth Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) home game that Elon had lost despite leading for a bit in the second half. The Phoenix finished 2-7 at home in conference play, leaving Matheny searching for answers.
“Crazy thing is, we’ve won four on the road in the same league,” he said. “We won more at home last year, but you look at our scores this year and compare them to our scores last year, and they’re a hell of a lot closer.”
The fact that Elon was as close to winning in so many CAA games has the team feeling like it’s at a much better place this year than they were last year.
“I think this year’s team has come a long way,” Matheny said. “I think we’ve performed better throughout the regular season this year than we did last year. We finished on a high note last year, but throughout an 18-game regular season, our team was better equipped to play in this league this year. You can just look at our scores and see that.”
And Matheny is not the only one from the team who feels that way heading into Friday night’s CAA Tournament opener, which pits the eighth-seeded Phoenix against ninth-seeded Drexel University at 6 p.m. in Baltimore.
“I think we took a step forward from last season. I think that we are a better team,” said junior guard/forward Christian Hairston. “Obviously, we would have liked to win a couple more games, but in the grand scheme of things, I do think we improved as a team and I do think we have something to look forward to coming up.”
The home record left much to be desired for Elon, but the Phoenix finished 7-11 in the CAA because the team played so well away from Elon.
“It is unusual,” Matheny said. “As much as we wanted to win more home games, we are pleased with the record on the road. I think that’s a recipe for success, in a lot of ways. If you can hold the home castle, and then have a record like that on the road, you can be successful in any league.”
The Phoenix went 5-4 as the visitor, with the signature win of the group coming at James Madison University Jan. 7. Elon also lost to league-leaders Hofstra University and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington by a closer margin at the other schools (two and four points, respectively) than at Alumni Gym (four and nine points).
“It’s definitely an unusual stat,” said freshman forward Tyler Seibring. “We really fought hard for all of our conference away games. We weren’t able to wrap up some of them at home, but it’s definitely an interesting stat.”
There is a frequently discussed theory in college athletics that playing on the road can be easier than playing at home for student-athletes. Hairston may be a believer in that theory.
“The game-day approach on the road is definitely different than the one at home,” Hairston said. “You know, we play Thursday-Saturday games, so if we have a home game on Thursday, we’re going to class, we’re doing school-related things, and we’re trying to fit our gameday schedule into our school schedule. When you’re on the road, you don’t have class, so your whole day is basically a game day schedule. It’s definitely different.”
Matheny did not completely agree with the idea, saying that sleep can be disrupted by being in an unfamiliar bed. But he recognized a few reasons why Elon has done so well away from home.
“I think we’ve done a good job this year of taking our academic adviser on the road with us, and our guys taking time to study, in a study-hall setup,” Matheny said. “But the fact that you don’t have to go to class, because you’re on the road studying, does let you focus more on basketball. There’s probably some truth in that, but there are a lot of advantages to playing at home.”
And make no mistake, Hairston loves playing in front of the Elon fans in Alumni Gym and wishes the Phoenix had won more at home.
“We would have definitely liked to have had a better home record — you want to protect your home court — but I think we did a good job going out on the road and pulling off some victories, also,” he said.
Elon did finish the regular season with a victory, a 77-59 win at the University of Delaware Feb. 27. And while it’s not the three-game winning streak Elon had entering last year’s tournament, Seibring said the win over the Blue Hens was big.
“That was definitely how we wanted to wrap this up,” he said. “We wanted to gain some momentum going into the conference tournament, and gain some confidence. Now we’re ready to play.”
Across 18 conference games, Elon’s overall point differential — the margin of Elon’s victories and losses summed up — was -29 points, for an average of less than two points per game. The fact that Elon is so close has been a mantra for Matheny all season.
“It sounds like a broken record, but we’re pretty close,” Matheny said. “We’re a better team at this point in many ways than we were last year at this point. And last year, we won four of our last five. And this year, we haven’t.”
But he stresses to his team that they need to always find ways to get better and every close game is a step in the right direction. His players have adopted that mindset, too.
“We are always looking to improve — we’ve gone in-depth with the film after every game,” Seibring said. “That’s the goal, to be at our best coming into the tournament. We strive for that, we’re working for that every day and we’ve put ourselves in a great position for this tournament. It was great to finish off the regular season with a win heading into the conference tournament.”
The final win to end conference play may be a positive sign, but Matheny is preaching to his team that it does not matter once the game ends and the tournament nears.
“It’s great to win the last regular season game — you get a good feeling going into the conference tournament play,” Matheny said. “But conference tournament play is completely different. It’s a whole new season. People say that all of the time, but by the time Friday rolls around, you’ve forgotten pretty much everything. You’re focused on trying to do the best you can in the conference tournament.”
Preparing for the turnaround
As Elon plays in the first round game at 6 p.m. Friday, the Phoenix will have to win four games in four days to win the CAA Tournament. Should Elon win, they would play at noon Saturday, the quickest turnaround imaginable from the end of one game to the start of the next.
But Matheny believes Elon’s schedule has his team prepared.
“The philosophy when we do our nonconference schedule is to try to put our players in a situation where they have experience in tournament play,” he said. “Quick turnarounds and back-to-back games, that’s our philosophy every year. What we need to do is be ready now to play as well as we can the first game.”
For a freshman experiencing the conference gauntlet for the first time, Seibring finds it to be atypical, but knows what is important.
“It’s been a very unusual conference schedule — you have a lot of break in the beginning of the week, but you have that quick turnaround,” Seibring said. “We’re used to making those quick adjustments, like watching film from one game to the next game. And then taking care of your body is so important in the conference tournament, and we’ve prepared for that, and we’ll continue to take care of our bodies in preparation for the next games.”
Seibring stressed that resting his legs is really important to maintaining a high level of play, and stretching and icing them will be vital in order for Elon to succeed.
But he feels he and the team are ready for the tournament, and so does Hairston.
“I think we’re prepared,” Hairston said. “Every team had to do the Thursday-Saturday, so every team will be ready for the quick turnaround. But I do feel like, personally, we do have what it takes to go all the way and win. We’ve got to take it one game at a time, but I definitely think we have what it takes.”
Elon would have to become the first team in CAA history to win four games en route to a conference tournament championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Elon has never won four games in four days before, so this group carries big aspirations to the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore.
But in addition to all the challenges that would come with achieving that, Matheny knows that the second, third and fourth games can’t be won unless the Phoenix wins its first.
“You don’t have to worry about the turnarounds if you don’t win the first game,” Matheny said. “It is harder to scout and really do a great job of preparing for an opponent. But the most important thing is win the first game. If you don’t win the first game, all of the other stuff is out the window.”