It’s always around this time of year that Elon University head men’s basketball coach Matt Matheny feels the national spotlight turning toward college basketball. And each year, he loves it the same.
But this year — with his Elon team currently tied for third in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), only to have the Elon women’s team sitting alone at the top of the CAA — may be the best year in school history to be an Elon fan, and Matheny can’t hold his excitement in.
“February and March are awesome in college basketball,” Matheny said. “I love the Super Bowl, but as soon as the Super Bowl’s over, college basketball seems to heat up. To be an Elon fan right now, with the success that they’re having and the way our young team is improving, makes for a very exciting — and potentially incredibly exciting — February and March.”
The women are continuing a torrid tear through the conference, sitting at 18-5 overall and 10-1 in the CAA. The Phoenix would be undefeated had James Madison University redshirt senior guard and likely CAA player of the year, Precious Hall, not dropped 41 points on Elon, leading the Dukes to a 76-70 win Jan. 20.
Leading the charge for the Phoenix is junior guard Shay Burnett, who could very easily be considered the best player in the conference if not for Hall. Burnett is averaging 12.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game, all team-highs.
In the past week alone, Burnett became the 22nd player in school history to score 1,000 points in her Elon career, and just the eighth player to do it before her senior year. Women’s head coach Charlotte Smith said that Burnett could have more points if she was a little more selfish.
“We knew, when we were recruiting Shay, that she was a game-changer for this program,” Smith said. “She’s so super-talented, but not only is she talented and can do a lot of things for herself, she does a lot of things for all the players around her. She’s a very selfless player — almost too selfless, at times. She probably could have amassed so many more points, but she’s such a selfless player and does a really good job of making everybody around her better.”
And for the Elon men, the team’s play continues to get better and better after starting conference play 0-3. Since that, Elon’s record is 7-2, with only a one-point loss at James Madison and a competitive loss at College of Charleston.
Matheny can see the team’s improvement by comparing Elon’s two games against the CAA-leading Cougars. Elon was down by as many as 24 in the second half Dec. 31, but Saturday, the Phoenix was trailing by just three with two minutes to go.
“The way we played Saturday gave me another example of our improvement,” Matheny said. “We’re a better team. We’re better than when we played Charleston the first time, and we’re better than we were a week ago. It sounds kind of boring to say the same thing over and over again, but that’s what we’re trying to do.”
With each Elon team going on a tear, the coaching staff have expressed support for each other, exchanging high-fives and words of encouragement frequently. It’s clear how much Matheny and Smith appreciate each other.
“The more successful both teams are, the more exposure for the university and for Elon athletics,” Smith said. “It’s great to have a great relationship with the men’s basketball staff. I’m just very excited about what’s happening in Elon athletics for both the men’s and women’s basketball team.”
Matheny concurred, saying, “I’m just ecstatic at how well her team is playing and the success they’re having. I think it’s really neat, as our program is starting to see glimmers of improvement and success, that they’re going through a very similar phase, and even taking it to another level.”
There’s only been one other season in which both the men’s and women’s basketball team finished with a winning record since Elon joined Division I: 2012-13. In Matheny’s fourth season, Elon won the Southern Conference North Division by going 13-5 in conference and finished 21-12 overall, the most wins in a single season since 1973-1974.
Meanwhile, Smith’s second year at the helm saw the Phoenix go 19-14 overall and 14-6 in the SoCon, good for third place and Elon’s highest-ever finish in the SoCon. But both teams fell in the conference semifinals, the closest either team has been to the NCAA Tournament under the current coach.
Smith has been back to the conference semifinals two more times since then, but hasn’t been able to cross that threshold and reach the conference final. Smith believes that the teams have been good enough to win it each time, but didn’t execute.
“The teams in the past have been teams capable of winning a championship — it’s not like we haven’t had opportunities,” Smith said. “The potential to be a championship team has always been there. We just have to be smarter out there, make better decisions and be able to close games out.
“When it comes to conference, it’s one-and-done. You can’t predict whether the ball is going to fall in the hole — no teams can predict that. You just go do the best that you can, and you try to win the game through defense and rebounding — and we’ve done a pretty good job of that throughout the whole entire year.”
While Elon has never been to the NCAA Tournament, each team has been in a conference championship game once since joining Division I, with the women losing to Liberty University 52-47 in the 2001 Big South championship.
Matheny was involved with the men’s lone appearance, but he was on the other side, an assistant for the Davidson College team that beat Elon 65-49 in 2008 and went to the Elite Eight. He remembers it well, having coached many of the same Elon players two years later when he took the Elon job, but feels like the program Elon was in the SoCon is very different than what Elon is now.
“I view what we’ve done the past couple of years as a brand new start,” Matheny said. “It’s like getting a new job, and we really put ourselves in a league that has great basketball. I’m just excited about how these guys are elevating our program.”
Matheny has reason to remain excited when looking at the team’s prospects in this year and beyond, as his entire starting lineup has at least one year of eligibility remaining. The Elon men’s team could easily be a threat for the next two or three years.
But there may never be a better chance for the women’s team than this year, with five seniors and three juniors making up the majority of the rotation for the Phoenix. That experience has been a key for the success, in Smith’s eyes.
“Experience definitely plays a huge part in our success,” Smith said. “In the game on Friday during a free throw, I called Shay over to the sideline to talk about some offensive sets. She looked at me and she said, ‘It’s funny you said that because I just said that to the team.’
“You’re already on the same page, and it’s like they can orchestrate things themselves because they know what my expectations are and they know what to look for out there on the floor.”
And, should the Elon women use that experience and break through to the Big Dance, Matheny and the men’s team will be right there with them.
“We’re pulling for them,” Matheny said. “I hope she wins it all.”