The distraction of final exams whisked into the past, the Elon University men’s basketball team should have a clear set of eyes heading into Thursday’s game at the University of Missouri.
But the two-game mini-homestand against two United States Collegiate Athletic Association opponents might have fogged up the Phoenix a bit as it prepares to face not only Missouri but second-ranked Duke University on Monday, Dec. 15.
Elon played — and throttled — Virginia University of Lynchburg on Dec. 2 right before exams and Central Pennsylvania College on Dec. 7 in the midst of exams. It didn’t really look like the Phoenix was very distracted, despite some players still needing to take finals the two days after the Central Penn blowout.
But the challenges of facing Missouri and particularly Duke provide a step into a higher echelon of NCAA basketball, not the lower tier of USCAA.
“Preparation doesn’t change very much. We’ll prepare the same way,” Elon coach Matt Matheny said after the Central Penn game. “What we told them in the locker room is get your finals done well. We won’t practice (Monday). We’ll encourage them to do well in their final exams. Then Tuesday afternoon when we get back together, there’s no distractions.”
Elon, which is 5-3 overall, gained some fruitful experience for its younger roster during the Cancun Challenge in late November. The Phoenix took Northwestern University to the wire before falling in overtime, sparked a massive comeback to beat Morgan State University and edged Miami University on the road.
So Elon has that in its arsenal.
Matheny stressed that the VUL and Central Penn games gave him an opportunity to try out some four-guard lineups and provided ample time for his freshmen, three of whom are playing quality minutes, to season themselves a little more. Because without a doubt, Elon will need all the help it can get against Missouri and Duke.
“We just like to focus on ourselves,” junior guard Tanner Samson said. “If we do what we can do, we’ll be alright no matter who we go against. We truly believe that. No matter who our opponent is, we focus on ourselves more than the opponent.”
Some would consider playing USCAA teams during the regular season an embarrassment since they play on a level multiple steps below Elon. When asked if playing those games is better than just scrimmaging in practice, Samson just noted that it’s better to see different players and different systems than to see each other.
He has a point, but playing consecutive games right before two of the biggest nonconference tests might be counterproductive when it comes to being in the right state of mind.
“The one thing we focus on the most is Elon is playing,” sophomore guard Luke Eddy said. “Duke’s playing. Missouri’s playing. Elon’s playing. We have to be together with ourselves and our system and just attack them.”
Central Penn was averaging 100.2 points per game entering the game against Elon. The Knights are no joke in the USCAA.
But in comparison to the second-best team in the country with potentially the Player of the Year in freshman Jahlil Okafor, Central Penn is just a fly on the wall.
And that fly might have spattered all over Elon’s windshield.