Fans roared as Luther Vandross’ “One Shining Moment,” the unofficial anthem of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, blared over the speakers of Elon University’s Alumni Gym.

Amidst the hubbub, Elon men’s basketball head coach Matt Matheny and his staff emerged from the corner of the gym. Matheny spoke for five minutes about how Elon expected to win the Southern Conference and advance to March Madness for the first time in school history.

That was Oct. 18 at “Late Night with the Phoenix.”

Now, in the first week of February, Elon sits just one game over .500 at 12-11 overall, 5-3 in Southern Conference play. The Phoenix has not had a winning streak longer than three games all season. As the preseason favorite to win the SoCon, Elon is currently in a logjam – for third place.

Sure, Elon beat Davidson College on the road Jan. 16, but that required a near-miracle comeback and narrow overtime escape. At one point during the game, Elon had a 0.9 percent chance of winning, yet still triumphed.

“We have not consistently played well enough defensively to expect to win games,” Matheny said following a win over Western Carolina University Jan. 30.

In the grand scheme of things, not much has changed since the beginning of the season, as Elon is still in their position of “win the SoCon tournament and get an automatic NCAA tournament bid.” Elon continues to insist this has always been its primary focus, and the recent losses are nothing more than learning opportunities.

“We always say we want to be the best we can be in March. That’s been a striving point for us,” senior forward Lucas Troutman said. “Even after a win or after a loss you still want to look at the little things that you didn’t do, you want to look at what you need to improve and those aspects [where] you can better the team and better everything around them.”

But time is running out for Elon to position itself for a run through the SoCon Tournament. Many “bracketologists” from ESPN and CBS Sports predict the winner of the conference will wind up as a No. 16 seed playing in a first-round game in Dayton, Ohio.

The league sits at 29th out of 32 leagues in terms of conference ratings percentage index, a crucial stat the NCAA uses to seed teams for the tournament. For the last few weeks, the projected SoCon champion has been the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which defeated Elon Jan. 23. But the Mocs turned around and lost at Davidson Jan. 30 by 43 points, 94-51.

Case in point: the SoCon is not very good. There is no true favorite. The one thing Chattanooga had on its side during an 8-0 run though the month of January was scheduling. The Mocs played only one team (Elon) with a current conference record over .500, and they played them at home.

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 10.54.19 AMWhy does this matter? Because Elon is entering a favorable period in its schedule. Beginning with the Feb. 1 game at Appalachian State University, the Phoenix plays seven straight teams with conference records of .500 or worse. Coming off of an extremely tough January, the Phoenix is given an opportunity to fix the problems that plagued it.

Troutman described the team’s mood after back-to-back road losses at Chattanooga and Samford University from Jan. 23 and 25 as “angry” for not being able to “do the little things.”

Knowing full well of the schedule ahead and his team’s struggles, Matheny changed the starting lineup by putting senior guard Jack Isenbarger and junior guard Kevin Blake into the lineup against Western Carolina Jan. 30.

“We really were close after the Chattanooga game going into the Samford game, and we had talked about it a lot,” Matheny said of the changes. “We know [Jack’s] ability, and we were trying to figure out how to best get him more involved. We just felt like now was the time we needed a spark.”

That spark helped push Elon to two straight wins, 74-60 over Western Carolina and 83-76 at Appalachian State. Now, Elon finds itself on a two-game win streak with the lighter schedule still ahead. But according to Matheny, improvements still need to be made.

“You can’t lapse against any team in the conference,” Matheny said. “We need to really improve how tough we are defensively.”

Elon still has to play the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (4-5) and Georgia Southern University (4-4) twice. The Phoenix will host both teams Feb. 6 and 8, respectively, and then travel to UNCG and Georgia Southern Feb. 19 and 22.  The week in between sees Elon visit bottom-feeder Furman University (1-6) and host Samford in a chance for revenge. Elon does not have to face Chattanooga again and its lone matchup with Wofford College (5-3) is at of the always-raucous Alumni Gym Feb. 27.

Despite the potential to go on a winning streak, Troutman is well aware of the difficulty every single conference game poses.

“It’s a long stretch, so you never know what’s going to happen,” Troutman said. “You look at the Southern Conference, every team in our conference is good and they have the ability to win. There’s no way we can go out and expect to win or expect to take over these games. We just have to take each game one by one and play the best we can play.”

Even if Davidson, whose lone conference loss came at the hands of Elon, winds up winning the SoCon regular season title and earning the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, Elon has an incentive to play hard. As long as the Phoenix, currently fifth in the conference, earns the No. 2 or 3 seed, they would not run into Davidson until the championship round of the conference tournament. For Elon to be able to upset Davidson a second time, it would benefit the Phoenix to have the Wildcats playing their third straight game rather than their second.UNCG w2w4 MBB

As of now, the Southern Conference regular season championship could be wrapped up by the time Davidson invades Alumni Gym March 1.

If the next six games transpire as they should on paper, the Davidson game could be Elon’s chance to grab all the momentum in the Southern Conference. With a tough loss or two for Elon heading into the Davidson game, the momentum could shift. A convincing Davidson win March 1 would make it extremely difficult for Elon to arrive in Asheville for the SoCon tournament playing their best basketball.

In order for Elon to accomplish their preseason expectations, February truly is “do or die.”

Matheny said the rocky January made his team aware of what losing feels like and motivated for the road ahead. Despite the learning process and favorable schedule, he refuses to look too far ahead.

After the Western Carolina win, he remarked “I don’t project anything other than that it was a good performance. We told the guys in the locker room, ‘you get to smile for a little bit, but don’t forget what we’ve just been through.’”

Where will Elon be March 1? February will tell whether the Phoenix is capable of advancing to March Madness or fading into the dust.