As the Elon University men’s basketball team gears up for another season, head coach Matt Matheny hasn’t been shy about his delight in his team’s work since last year’s disappointing finish.
“We have talked a lot to our players about how proud we are of how they worked in the offseason,” Matheny said. “I feel like we have better players this year than we had last year, even though they’re the same guys. We’ve had some player development — individual improvement. This is a different team.”
Even though it’s a new year, the cast returning for 2016-17 looks very similar to that of last year’s. 11 of Elon’s top 12 players in terms of minutes per game are returning, with only Tanner Samson ’16 departing from that group. With such a large group coming back, the memories of last season are still vivid in the mind of senior guard Luke Eddy.
“I think what we need to do — and what we have done — is remember how we ended last March,” Eddy said. “Remember that loss to Drexel [University], which I’ve been thinking about all year.”
Eddy is particularly excited to be surrounded by sharpshooters, saying it’s a “blessing” to be the point guard on this team. Elon’s playing style — which consistently has four guys around the perimeter — opens the court for a drive-and-kick guard like Eddy.
But it also leaves a possible deficiency in offensive rebounding, something Matheny says Elon is very cognizant of.
“We still want to get offensive rebounds and second-chance opportunities,” Matheny said. “It is very important that our bigger guys attack the glass, even if they are on the perimeter. Sometimes, that’s the best time to go to the glass, because you’re so far out, people won’t box you out. We do need more than just the guy that’s in the paint to get offensive rebounds.”
One of the keys to achieving that will be senior guard/forward Christian Hairston, who — at 6 feet 7 inches, 220 pounds — can play multiple positions on the court. The positional fluidity that he has gives Matheny many different lineup combinations to try, something Hairston knows is valuable.
“Last year, we had a few different lineups, whether that be because someone was out or Coach wanted to switch things up,” Hairston said. “We have a lot of guys that can contribute to the team, so you might see a lot of different lineups out there, maybe even to throw the team off-balance. We’ve got a lot of guys who can help the team, and we’re all fighting for the chance to get minutes.”
In that fight for minutes in the exhibition victory over Randolph College Nov. 1 was junior guard Dmitri Thompson, who came off the bench after limited practicing time during the week leading up to the game. Known as “Meech” by his teammates, Thompson was a perfect 5-for-5 from the field, making all three 3-pointers to finish with 14 points on the night. But Thompson thinks the key to the team’s success won’t be on offense.
“We can score — we have a lot of people that can score, and we push the ball all the time,” Thompson said. “But when we’re locked in defensively, when we get to be at our best, we’re going to look like the Spurs. Good defense all around, from the bigs to the guards, ball screens, handoffs. We’re going to be in-sync as a team, and I feel like that’s when we’re going to be at our best.”
It’s a common sentiment around the program, as Matheny’s constantly working to improve the team’s defense and rebounding. Elon was ninth in the 10-team Colonial Athletic Association in scoring defense, allowing 75.4 points per game, and eighth in defensive rebounding percentage, grabbing 70.5-percent of rebounds on that end of the court. Matheny feels like the team needs to go after the ball less and box out more.
“There’s a dilemma that players are faced with: ‘Should I just go get the ball, or should I box out?’” Matheny said. “We want to err on the side of team boxing out. If you box yours, we can get more defensive rebounds. We’re a team-rebounding team.
“We don’t have a Dennis Rodman-type that has averaged 20-plus defensive rebounds, so we’ve got to be more of a box-out team. We’re trying to play different defensively, where we’re not in as many rotations. I think that’ll help us box out, but that’s an area where we’ve got to get better in.”
Thompson agrees, adding, “I feel like we still need to improve on our defense and our rebounding. We still lacked a couple details, little things. That’s our main focus. We can score, we’re a pretty good scoring team. Defense and rebounding.”
If Elon can do that — and it’s a big if — then Hairston believes Elon will be able to achieve its goal come conference tournament time.
“We want to win the CAA championship,” Hairston said. “We want to win the tournament in March and go to the NCAA tournament. I think that’s the goal for everyone here. Coach has been saying, ‘Play for the championship every day.’ We’ve been trying to go hard in practice, and we’re trying to play for a championship every night.”
And with the Schar Center being built on the other side of Williamson Avenue set to open in two years, it’s the program’s — and Eddy’s — dream to continue its growth with a March Madness trip.
“Everything’s getting bigger in the Elon program,” Eddy said. “We’re getting a bigger stadium, we’re getting bigger kids, more kids are knowing our names, we play on national television. I think it’s great for the program.
“But we still have two years left in Alumni Gym, and we have a lot of history to make here first.”