Even though the Elon University men’s basketball team is looking ahead and preparing for the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Tournament, head coach Matt Matheny took some time after Saturday’s 81-59 win over the University of Delaware to think big-picture. 

In its third season in the CAA, the Phoenix finished the regular season 18-13 overall and 10-8 in conference play, good for a tie for fourth place in one of the best mid-major conferences in the country. With the emotions of Senior Night at the forefront of his mind, Matheny reflected on what that group had seen since arriving on campus.

“It’s just interesting as you look at this senior class and you think about them being a team that was one of the better teams in the Southern Conference,” Matheny said. “That’s what they came into, and they saw not a finished product, but a team that had climbed up the mountain to the top of a conference.

“And then all of a sudden, it switched on them, we were the new boy, and we were looking up at some really good teams. And we’re starting to climb, and that’s just a great experience for those guys.”

Elon will be the fifth seed in Charleston, taking on the College of William & Mary at 2:30 p.m. Saturday night. Junior guard Dmitri Thompson said avoiding having to play on Friday night like Elon had done the first two years in the league was “tremendous.” 

“My first two years, playing the first game, it was just tough for us,” Thompson said. “We played Towson, went to overtime, and that game was brutal. Then after that, we had to come play the No. 1 seed William & Mary, and that was just grueling — it was really hard for us. Having this bye — or whatever you want to call it — is going to be good for us. We can get our minds right, we can get an extra day of rest, and just be ready to play.”

Matheny concurred, but also cautioned, “It’s great not to have to play on the first night, but we play a very good team. It doesn’t matter that you don’t play on the first night if you don’t win the first game.”

While that may be true, the Phoenix has quickly made a name for itself in a tough league, using an aggressive onslaught from deep to stretch defenses out.

“I think we’re a good 3-point shooting team,” Matheny said. “What’s important for our players is that we are looking to shoot the ball with confidence. That’s why we made those threes. Guys know creating, kicking out, looking for guys that are open, and shooting the ball with confidence.”

That confident stroke has put Elon in the range of reaching 20 wins in a season for just the second time in the Division I era. Elon will almost assuredly be invited to a postseason tournament, and Matheny said he’d like to play after the CAA Tournament no matter the result in Charleston. But there’s a clear goal in mind, and Thompson thinks the team has prepared itself for this moment.

“I think we’re ready,” Thompson said. “We’ve had a great schedule, we’ve been put to the test a lot, we’ve had challenges, but we’ve overcome most of those challenges and we’ve been playing pretty well lately. I feel like we have what it takes to make a run. I really do.”

And for Matheny, while he appreciated where the team has come from, he thinks this Elon team is as ready to fight for its first NCAA Tournament bid as any before it.

“I think we’re a good team, I think we’re a tough team,” Matheny said. “We’re much better defensively than we were last year. I think we’re a much better rebounding team, and that’s what we wanted to be, that makes us a better tournament team.

“We’re excited about how far we’ve come, but we want to go to the NCAA Tournament. Let’s go practice well this week and see if we can win the first round.”