Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Elon Preview: Wading Through Decency, Phoenix Look to Hit Pinnacle in 2012-13

Under fourth year coach Matt Matheny, the Elon Phoenix has steadily improved, by the record anyways. Elon was 9-23 in 2009-2010, 14-17 in 2010-11, and 15-16 in 2011-12.
All of this while watching Matheny's alma mater and former employer Davidson College walk away with success year after year, the Phoenix has floundered in decency. There have been great players and great games, but nothing has been able to stick, no real success has stuck. In this past year, the Phoenix had a shot to win a North Division title, but finished one game behind UNC-Greensboro.
But this year may be Elon’s greatest opportunity to make it to the Southern Conference Tournament finals since 2008, the penultimate season under former head coach Ernie Nestor. No pieces from that team remain, other than assistant coach Monty Sanders, who was a player on that 2008 squad. The players Phoenix fans will bank on to lead the maroon and gold to the proverbial promised land of the NCAA Tournament are a dangerous quartet of juniors and a silky smooth sophomore.
The real starting five from 2011-2012 remains intact. Now-graduated guard Drew Spradlin (9.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg in 2011-2012) started 27 of Elon’s 31 games, but now-sophomore guard Austin Hamilton (9.2 ppg, 2.8 apg) was really starting by the end of the season as Spradlin sputtered a bit.
The other four are led by guard Jack Isenbarger (14.5 ppg, 2.7 apg), a coaches All-SoCon selection last year despite missing two early games and being limited with a shoulder injury all season. The sharp-shooting guard from Zionsville, Ind., was eighth in the SoCon in scoring, sixth  in three-point field goal percentage (39.9%) and third in free-throw percentage (87.1%). He was a big part of the Phoenix’s season-ending push for the North Division crown, notching double-digit scoring in 14 of Elon’s last 15 games.
Isenbarger is aided down low by forward Lucas Troutman (12.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg), who finished tied for 14th in the SoCon in scoring and provides the biggest threat in the post for Elon. Guard Sebastian Koch (8.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg) provides another sharp shot from beyond the arc (35.4% success rate from three-point range), while forward Ryley Beaumont (7.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg) provides some gut and strength at the power forward spot.
Hamilton had a stellar, All-SoCon freshman year that was hampered by a bout with mononucleosis and a wrist injury that required surgery in the offseason. If healthy, look for him to be a crucial part of the Elon offensive game.
Key faces off the bench are Bonney, junior forward Eghoesa Edomwonyi and senior forward Roger Dugas. Bonney struggled during the regular season (1.5 ppg in 8.2 mpg), but averaged 6.5 points and 3.5 assists in increased minutes during the SoCon Tournament when Hamilton was limited due to his wrist injury. If he can continue that taut play and limit his turnovers, he will be getting significant minutes off the bench and Matheny will have the ability to rotate those guards to perfection. Edomwonyi (2.6 ppg, 1.9 rpg in 10.3 mpg), a former Rice transfer, and Dugas (1.2 ppg, 1.1 rpg in 5 mpg) will need to be huge off the bench to relieve Troutman and Beaumont, especially considering the loss of sixth man forward Brett Ervin (4.4 ppg, 2.7 rpg in 13.4 mpg) to a non-basketball transfer.
Sophomore guard Kevin Blake (1.5 ppg, 1.3 rpg in 8.8 mpg) and sophomore forward Ryan Winters (1.4 ppg, 1.4 rpg in 6.2 mpg in 14 games) will need to provide a few solid minutes per game.
Four new freshmen populate the roster as newcomers. Guard Tanner Samson comes highly touted from Winters’ alma mater Regis Jesuit High School in Littleton, Colo. (also Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin’s high school), while center Tony Sabato provides a bit of height in the post. Guard Sam Hershberger and forward Wes Brewer are walk-ons.
Elon’s schedule this year features a number of Ivy League teams (four) and a few other big games. The first is Nov. 10 against Butler University in Indianapolis as part of the EA Sports Maui Invitational Opening Games. This match against the recent two-time national runners-up is the highlight of the season, as well as the four games Elon will host as part of the inaugural Maui Invitational Regional Games at Alumni Gym in Elon. The Phoenix will take on Colgate University and either Florida Atlantic University or Coppin State University Nov. 17-18.
With Elon’s 58-53 of the University of South Carolina last November still exciting the maroon and gold fan base, the Phoenix takes on the Gamecocks again Nov. 21 in Columbia as part of Frank Martin’s first season in South Carolina. Other non-conference highlights include visiting Virginia Military Institute Nov. 24 and Duke University Dec. 20.
Key Southern Conference games include a Nov. 28 opener at Georgia Southern University and the final two match-ups of the season, both at home, against Davidson Feb. 27 and UNCG March 2.
As with any team, there are several questions surrounding the Phoenix. Let’s look at three:
1)  How will the Phoenix rebound from numerous injuries going into the season?: Hamilton, Isenbarger, Winters and Blake all missed time in 2011-2012 due to injury. All four should be healthy to start the season, but will those injuries prohibit strong play, especially from Hamilton and Isenbarger, the starting backcourt? Bouncing off that...
2)  Will the bench step up?: The bench was clutch last season, with Ervin, Spradlin, Hamilton and Isenbarger providing key minutes off the bench whenever they did not start. But with none of those four sitting on the sidelines to start the game this season, Dugas, Edomwonyi and Bonney will need to produce scoring and rebounding, a big weakness of this team last year.
3)  Will Elon finally beat Davidson?: One basketball player said the team hates Davidson because they’re always good. The last time Elon defeated Davidson was March 5, 2010, in the Southern Conference Tournament. Bob McKillop’s squad dealt the Phoenix two crucial blows last season: a 66-45 win Feb. 23 to end Elon’s hopes of a North Division championship and an 83-67 victory March 4 to knock the maroon and gold out of the SoCon Tournament. Matheny may still be lingering in McKillop’s shadow. And Elon’s Feb. 27 match-up with the Wildcats in Alumni Gym may be a crucial game in order to help the Phoenix notch a division championship this season.
The answers to these questions will begin to take shape Nov. 10 against Butler. Phoenix fans and SoCon watchers throughout the country will want to see if Elon can escape the prison of adequacy the program has been wading through the last few years. In the last year, players and coaches have worn shirts that say “Elevate Elon,” a motto used in an attempt to motivate a program status change. The win over South Carolina was huge; it got Elon on SportsCenter’s top ten the day after. Progress has been made, and Elon’s inclusion in the EA Sports Maui Invitational is a bit indicative.
But really, it comes down to the results on the court and the answers to those three questions. Elon has the talent to make it to the NCAA Tournament this season. But they find themselves in a tough conference where there’s realistically one bid.
And honestly, it’s not that far out of reach.


Zachary Horner- Sports Editor, The Pendulum

From October 23-November 3, each day there will be a preview of a SoCon team written by one of their fans/bloggers. Tomorrow- Furman.

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