By Tyler Ash
Elon’s final year in the Southern Conference presents their hoops squad with their best chance to grab their first NCAA berth. Elon will be transitioning to the Colonial Association in 2014-2015, leaving the basketball squad one final chance to represent the Southern Conference in the March Madness NCAA tournament for all eyes to see.
2012-2013 Season Recap
The Phoenix enjoyed their most successful season in school history in 2012-2013, posting their first 20-plus-win season since the program elevated to Division I play in 2003. The Phoenix won 13 Southern Conference games a season ago under the tutelage of head coach Matt Matheny, capturing the So-Con North Division Title. However, NCAA tournament aspirations fell short as the Phoenix bowed out to the Charleston Cougars in the So-Con semifinal. After losing in the So-Con semifinal, the Phoenix accepted an invitation from the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT), marking the school’s first postseason appearance at the Division I level. Elon lost in the first round of the invitational tournament to Canisus, but a playoff berth proved to be a major step in the development of a program that is trying to put itself on the college basketball map.
Departing Players/ New Faces
The only departing players from last year’s campaign are Aaron Smith, John Moody and Josh Bonney. Of the trio of seniors, only Bonney held a role in the rotation in the regular season and the conference tournament. As the backup point guard, Bonney gave the Phoenix a consistent threat to attack the basket and push the ball in transition. Bonney left a lasting impression in his final game with the Phoenix, scoring 15 points in 16 minutes in the loss to Charleston.
Highly touted freshmen Christian Hairston (6’7) and Brian Dawkins (6’8) provide the Phoenix with much needed size off the bench. Hairston reportedly turned down offers from Davidson and Richmond to play for coach Matheny. Dawkins has been described “a sound scorer and rebounder” by various scouts. Other newcomers to the Phoenix include point guard Luke Eddy and shooting guard Ryder Bowline.
Starting Lineup Loaded with Talented Upperclassmen
With all five starters returning from last year’s squad, Elon has a terrific opportunity to unseat the two-time defending Southern Conference champion Davidson Wildcats. After suffering a season-ending ACL tear in mid-January of last season, junior guard Austin Hamilton is set to run the point for the Phoenix. Joining him in the backcourt will be senior guard Jack Isenbarger, who notched the second most three-pointers (82) in the Southern Conference last season. Isenbarger, a third-team All-SoCon honoree, registered 13.2 points per contest last season. A year after shooting an otherworldly 86.5 percent from the free-throw line, Isenbarger was selected to the 2013-2014 all-conference preseason team by the league’s head coaches.
The Phoenix has a particularly strong front-court, led by senior center Lucas Troutman, last season’s runner up for Player of the Year in the Southern Conference. After being selected to the All-SoCon first-team last season, Troutman was tabbed to the Preseason All-American team. Troutman led the Southern Conference in blocks (64) in 2012-2013, posting 15.1 points per contest on 54.6 percent shooting from the field. Troutman, named to the preseason all-conference team for the second year in a row, will be joined by seniors Ryley Beaumount and Sebastian Koch. Beaumount, the third member of the Phoenix named to the preseason all-conference team, had a breakout season in 2012-2013, leading the team in rebounds per game (7.1), while posting 11.8 points per contest. Beaumount was the only player on the Phoenix to start all 33 games last year. Koch, an athletic swingman that started 31 games a season ago, rounds up the starting lineup. Koch averaged 9.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in 30.8 minutes per game last season. He drained the second-most three pointers for Elon last year with 67 hits from behind the arc.
The Phoenix will unquestionably feature the best starting lineup in the Southern Conference, yet their star bench player cannot be overlooked. Sharp-shooting sophomore guard Tanner Sampson will spearhead the bench. With Hamilton sidelined for much of last season, the freshman guard was thrust into the starting lineup. Sampson started 15 games for the Phoenix, recording 7.1 points per contest. He connected on 60 treys and converted 20-of-22 free-throw attempts last season. The three-point shot is a critical part of the Phoenix game plan, which means Sampson will be counted on a nightly basis to provide a spark off the bench.
Elon opens the regular season against Washington & Lee University on Nov. 8, before playing road games at Marist College (Nov. 10) and at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (Nov.15).
The Phoenix will then travel to Rutgers University in New Jersey for the Preseason NIT 16-team invitational tournament. Elon will play Drexel University on Nov. 18 in the first round of the NIT Season Tip-Off.
Notable matchups for the Phoenix include visits to Colorado University (Dec. 13), Georgetown University (Dec. 17), Duke University (Dec. 31) and a home contest against the University of Massachusetts (Jan.18). Conference play begins for the Phoenix at Western Carolina on January 4th, proceeded two days later by a So-Con contest at Alumni Gym versus Appalachian State.
Prediction: Phoenix Seize the Moment, Capture First-Ever NCAA Berth
Now in his fifth season as coach of the Phoenix, Matt Matheny believes his team has what it takes to advance to the big dance. Matheny, the former assistant coach at Davidson, has high hopes for the club he took over for in 2009.
"The Davidsons, the Butlers, the VCUs, the Gonzagas — we aspire to be a program like that,” Matheny said in an interview with USA Today Sports’ Scott Glesson. “When we get the Monday USA TODAY, we want Elon to be on the front of paper. Every player that comes in my office, every recruit, that's what we talk about. Every day we have to ask ourselves: What does it take to get there?"
Matheny has built the program to its highest point, being selected as the conference favorites by both the Southern Conference head coaches’ and the media poll for the upcoming season. The Phoenix has increased their win total in each season under Matheny, culminating in a SoCon North Division Title last year. The North and South division have now been eliminated with the departure of Charleston from the conference. Regardless, Elon’s 2013-2014 campaign will not be measured by regular season triumph. Instead, Elon’s last season in the Southern Confernce will be deemed a success if the program can win the Southern Conference tournament. With Matheny at the helm, the sky is the limit for Elon, who will be “dancing” to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history come March.