Elon (15-18, 6-12)
It would be natural to write off a team that lost twice as many games as it won in conference play, and is absent of more than half its scoring from those same 18 games. When considering that one of the departed was the CAA Rookie of the Year, this situation looks particularly disconcerting.
But it’s important to realize what Elon had working in its favor before January began.
Heading into a nonconference roadie with former SoCon rival UNC-Greensboro, Luke Eddy was pacing the Phoenix at 13.8 points per game. Elon’s sixth man was the reigning CAA Player of the Week, having dropped 21.5 points per game on Mizzou and Duke the week prior.
Right before the first half’s U12 timeout, Eddy took an outlet pass coast-to-coast and finished over two defenders before tumbling to the ground. It was his last bucket of the season, as the junior guard suffered a torn ACL on the play.
The Phoenix won in Greensboro, and commenced on a four-game winning streak that culminated in a 77-67 victory at The DAC (Elon’s inaugural conference game as a member of the CAA). A few days later, the Phoenix pushed to 10-6 overall and 2-1 in league play after an 85-79 home win over William & Mary.
But without Eddy, things went largely downhill thereafter.
Over the next six weeks, Elon dropped 11 of its 12 games. The Phoenix concluded league play allowing a league-worst 106.9 points per 100 possessions.
The Eddy injury forced head coach Matt Matheny, with a backcourt thin on ball handlers, to rely on playmaking freshman Elijah Bryant to pick up the slack. As the centerpiece of Elon’s offense, Bryant tallied gaudy numbers and garnered the CAA Rookie of the Year award.
Bryant used more possessions (35.5%) than all but two D-I players in ’14-’15. When factoring in his 110 turnovers (seventh most in D-I) and sub-par shooting percentages (apparently, a result of the necessity to hoist shots with the clock winding down for a team that finished top-30 nationally in both adjusted tempo and average length of possession), his numbers lose a bit of luster.
Although Bryant has taken his desire to be an academician/high-volume chucker to Brigham Young, there’s reason to believe that Elon can be better for it. Momentum created by a late-season four-game winning streak, now-healthy knees, and an otherwise positive offseason have the Phoenix faithful believing that this season could be special.
When Bryant announced his intention to transfer in June, Matheny was tasked with replacing three guards (Bryant, Austin Hamilton, and Kevin Blake) who played more than 40% of Elon’s minutes in league play. Despite the impending addition of touted shooting guard Steven Santa Ana, Elon’s backcourt was looking direly shallow.
Matheny landed two guard commitments over the summer, solidifying Elon’s backcourt and adding to a promising freshman class simultaneously.
Eddy was primed for an All-CAA caliber season, and could be poised to make a run for those accolades this season. Eddy’s 120.6 offensive rating would’ve topped the CAA, and while we can’t expect him to be full throttle come November, he should be rounding into form by the time league play rolls around.
Senior Tanner Samson (12.5 points per game) enters the season 58 points away from 1,000 for his career, and just 24 treys away from becoming Elon’s all-time leader in 3-pointers made. After shooting 43.4% from beyond the arc as a sophomore, Samson had slumped to 36.0% as a junior. Elon’s offensive attack will be more balanced this year, which should help Samson find more room to operate on the perimeter.
The three freshmen guards should find the court early and often. Santa Ana, a three-star prospect with flashy high school numbers, will compete for big-time minutes (potentially a starting role) from the get go. Sharpshooters Dainan Swoope and Sheldon Eberhardt were the two late additions to Elon’s five-man recruiting class, and should also get run. Swoope appears well-positioned to carve out a consistent role at point guard while Eddy works his way back from injury.
Injuries forced the Phoenix to play a lot of small ball in ’14-’15, as Matheny’s squad finished 305th nationally in effective height (the average height of players playing the center and power forward positions). Consequently, the Phoenix blocked fewer shots at the rim (3.0%) than any team in D-I, and allowed CAA foes to grab a league-high 32.6% of their missed shots.
The return of Brian Dawkins, a redshirt sophomore who was held out last season following a prolonged recovery from offseason knee surgery, and an influx of freshmen bigs will allow Elon to field stouter, more traditional lineups.
Athletic wings Christian Hairston and Dmitri Thompson will spend less time in the post banging with beefier opponents. Hairston shot 61.9% from the field, and needs more touches. Thompson is an offensively raw but promising wing who has the potential to be a true difference maker on both ends of the court. 6’6” swingman Collin Luther mixed in for a dozen minutes per game last season, notably dropping a career-high 11 points in Elon’s CAA Tournament victory over Towson.
Tyler Seibring and Karolis Kundrotas are the big men filling out Elon’s freshman class. Seibring will be an asset as a versatile big who can stretch defenses with his shooting. Kundrotas was originally committed to Charlotte, but reopened his commitment after the coaching change. The 6’10” forward from Lithuania possesses a body ready for college ball, and the ability to step out and hit shots on the perimeter.
Seibring and Kundrotas will compete with senior Tony Sabato and sophomore Jack Anton for post minutes. Sabato and Anton ranked ninth and eleventh, respectively, in minutes played per outing. The two post players from Cincinatti’s Archbishop Moeller should benefit from the presences of other big-bodied post players, but will need to produce more in the minutes they receive to earn expanded roles.
Invited walk-on Jack George redshirted the ’14-’15 season with the goal of becoming physically ready for D-I basketball. We’ll see if George has progressed to the point of carving out a role in the frontcourt.
The common denominator for Elon’s five freshmen is the highly proficient shooting, and adding these five into the mix with Eddy and Samson will give Elon the potential to be one of the better three-point shooting teams in the CAA.
Despite Bryant’s exodus, there are positive things in motion here (including designs for a new convocation center). Even so, it would require a leap of faith to peg Elon in the upper half of the CAA. More than half of the team hasn’t ever suited up in a CAA game. That’s not damning by any means, but it does speak to the fact that this a relatively young team that hasn’t been through the conference rigors. That’s what made this summer’s voyage to Germany, Austria, and Italy so valuable.
Another challenging nonconference slate featuring college hoops blue bloods Duke, Syracuse, and Michigan will provide Elon with early proving grounds. Additionally, the Phoenix will play four of its first five conference games at home, which will give Matheny’s squad multiple opportunities to start the new year with a bang.
To be taken seriously as a contender, Elon will need to emerge from that early five-game conference stretch with (at minimum) a 3-2 record. While I think this team will make strides as the year progresses, I will be surprised if the Phoenix manages to escape one of the two opening-round games in Baltimore.