Just a month ago, the Elon University men’s basketball team was on cloud nine. On Oct. 18, in front of a packed house at “Late Night with the Phoenix” in Alumni Gym, Elon head coach Matt Matheny listed off the expectations for his team.
Win the Southern Conference tournament. Go to the NCAA tournament. Make Elon a national name.
So far, not so good. Sure, Elon opened up its regular season with a 114-64 blowout home win over Div. III school Washington & Lee University University. Sure, the Phoenix went on the road to Poughkeepsie, N.Y. and thrashed Marist College 75-48 two days later.
But since then, things have gone south. Elon hit the road to face the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and was handed its first loss, 83-69. Elon shot 41.9 percent in the game and allowed the 49ers to shoot 50.9 percent, including 61.5 percent in the second half.
“The season is still young,” everyone thought.
After all, senior guard Jack Isenbarger had yet to play due to injury.
But then, Elon traveled to Piscataway, N.J. for the NIT Season Tip-Off and promptly lost two more games—71-64 to Drexel University in a game that was more lopsided than the score indicates, and 86-85 to Canisius College on a buzzer-beater.
In those two games, Elon allowed Drexel to shoot 42.9 percent, but 50 percent in the second half. Canisius shot a whopping 57.7 percent against the Phoenix and pulled out the win despite being outrebounded 34-25.
LAST TIME OUT: Canisius hits buzzer-beater, sinks Elon
Elon returns to North Carolina at 2-3, with all hopes of an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament likely dashed. Teams such as Iona College in 2012 (25-8, 15-3 in a mid-range conference) or George Mason University in 2006 (27-8, 15-3 in a very strong Colonial Athletic Association) have not had glaring losses such as these on their tournament resumes. Additionally, the Southern Conference has never sent more than one team to the NCAA tournament, primarily due to its low status among NCAA conferences.
This means that Elon will now have to win the Southern Conference Tournament to achieve that goal of March Madness. Such a task is achievable, as Elon was favored to win the conference in many preseason media publications.
The Phoenix still has its toughest nonconference tests ahead in games against Duke University, Georgetown University and the University of Colorado. One can look at Elon’s conference slate and argue Elon should breeze through SoCon play, but it is tough to build momentum heading into conference play with a flat non-conference season. By the same token, optimists can point to these losses and claim that the Phoenix will be battle-tested come February and March and ready to go on a run through the SoCon tournament.
Both points have their positives and negatives. Sure, Elon will be battle tested, but it will only pay off if the team learns from its mistakes. Elon will have plenty of opportunities to get Isenbarger, who played in both games in Piscataway but did not score, up to speed and improve upon their defensive miscues.
Don’t hit that panic button just yet. Elon’s back is now against the wall with all the pressure on one weekend in March in Asheville, N.C. But Davidson College, seemingly Elon’s only true competition in the SoCon, is 0-3. There is still abundant hope, thus why we have “March Madness” and not “November Madness.” Championships are won in March, and a healthy Elon team certainly seems championship worthy.