Elon men’s basketball has its first game of the 2017-2018 campaign tonight, Nov. 10, and the Phoenix will be forced to hit the ground running. Elon will make the 40-minute drive to Durham to take on Duke, who starts the season at the top of the national rankings.
History of the matchup
The Blue Devils are a familiar foe for Elon. The two have squared off 30 times throughout program history, but the last Elon win was in 1922.
Friday’s meeting will mark Elon’s sixth game against Duke in just as many years. Through the last five, the Blue Devils have outscored the Phoenix 414-292. In 2015, Duke totally dominated, cruising to a 105-66 victory at home. Last year, at the Greensboro Coliseum, Elon kept things much closer. Following a one-point halftime lead, the Phoenix fell 72-61.
That game in Greensboro made national headlines, but not because of the scoreline. Grayson Allen, Duke’s polarizing point guard, intentionally tripped Elon’s Steven Santa Ana. Replays of the now-infamous incident made the rounds on television the next day, giving Elon some unexpected exposure.
When Elon plays Duke this year, it will mark its 25th game against a ranked opponent since 1998. The Phoenix has played against the national No. 1 twice in that stretch, as they took on top-ranked Duke teams in 2010 and 2012.
Placement in the polls
The Blue Devils are ranked No. 1 in both the AP Top 25 and the national Coaches Poll. Additionally, the squad was predicted to finish first in the always-competitive Atlantic Coast Conference in the annual media poll. Many have picked this year’s Duke team as a serious contender for a national title.
While the Phoenix does not quite have the same national recognition, it comes into this year with preseason expectations the highest they have been in years. Elon has not made much of a splash in the Colonial Athletic Association since joining the conference in 2014, but a breakout year could be in store this winter.
Elon was tapped to finish third in the conference in the preseason poll, their highest projected finish since joining the CAA. Collegeinsider.com has Elon starting the season at No. 22 nationally in its preseason poll.
Much of the chatter about both teams involves the level of experience on their respective rosters. For Elon, it is an abundance; for Duke, a lack.
Every member of last year’s starting five returns for the Phoenix. The team’s experience is likely the reason for its many preseason accolades. Although the starting five includes only one senior, the four juniors taking the court got plenty of minutes last year.
Dmitri Thompson is that lone senior, and his experience shows in his on-court poise. The team communicates well, and plays with a level of cohesiveness that Duke will have trouble matching.
The Blue Devils, meanwhile, will likely start three or four freshmen. Renowned for its recruiting prowess, Duke onboards talent just as quickly as it leaves to play in the NBA. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski is no stranger to young lineups, but the team’s limited experience could show. Elon will hope to capitalize on Duke’s lack of chemistry and the fact that a number of Blue Devils will be seeing their first-ever minutes against a Division I college opponent.
Duke players to watch
Duke teams are often led by one or two superstars, and Allen certainly occupies that role this year. A talented combo guard, Allen can serve as a play-caller when he is needed but is a greater asset when he posts up on the perimeter and puts his shooting on display.
Allen averages 13.6 points per game and will run up the score against Elon if the Phoenix cannot lock him down. Elon’s defense fares better on the perimeter than it does down low, but Grayson Allen can take advantage of even the slightest defensive lapses to make opponents suffer.
Even though he represents a pillar of experience in the Blue Devils’ lineup, Allen is working past a history of temper flareups. This comes as no surprise to Elon fans, who remember him for his infamous trip of Steven Santa Ana last December.
Santa Ana will likely be burdened with most of the Grayson-Allen-guarding duties on Friday, and he will have his work cut out for him. Santa Ana is comparable in size to Allen, and he has the perimeter ability to play his matchup close. It will be interesting to see if the pair will have any bad blood from last year’s incident or if they will have any reconciling conversations on the court.
Marvin Bagley III
The Blue Devils boasted the nation’s best recruiting class, and Bagley is the crown jewel. The true freshman is young but has a ton of raw talent. He put up ludicrous numbers in high school, averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds per game, making him the consensus No. 1 recruit in his class.
Bagley has extraordinary agility and awareness in the paint, making it easy for him to punish anyone who cannot body him up down low. He has solid body control for someone who stands at 6’11”, which allows him to weaponize his height.
Elon has struggled to find a reliable paint presence in recent years, but Karolis Kundrotas has begun to fill that role. The 6’11” forward likely be tasked with locking down Bagley. Kundrotas has grown into his size well in his first two years on the team and might be able to get some help from Brian Dawkins on Friday. Dawkins does not always have the presence of a true center, but his power and experience could be important in helping keep Bagley at bay.
Elon’s climb in the CAA has largely been due to its fast-paced offense. What the Phoenix lacks in size and agility, it has made up for in craftiness. With a cohesive starting lineup that knows how to communicate and run plays, there is a chance Elon could out-smart Duke. The Phoenix will be Duke’s first DI opponent of the year, and if they can keep pressure on the Blue Devils for 40 minutes, they could frustrate their opponent’s inexperienced starters.
While Elon can spread scoring across fairly well, Tyler Seibring will have to have a good game to give Duke a scare. Seibring is a talented small forward with the ability to score from pretty much anywhere on the floor. He has the size to compete down low, but his bread and butter is at the high post and just outside the arc. He is a pivotal member of Elon’s strong junior class, and they will rely on him to score against Duke.
While Elon’s starting five has received its fair share of praise, Elon coach Matt Matheny will need a few bench players to step up and help keep the starters energized against Duke’s physicality.
The Phoenix needs every single thing to go right to have a chance of beating Duke for the first time in 95 years, but there are a lot of things going right for the Maroon and Gold.