By: Matt MacCormack
Last Season: 15-18 (CAA: 6-12), 8th place
Losses: G Elijah Bryant (transfer), G Austin Hamilton, G Kevin Blake, F Ryan Winters
Newcomers: G Steven Santa Ana, F Tyler Seibring, G Sheldon Eberhardt, F/C Karolis Kundrotas, G Dainan Swoope
Things worked out pretty well for the Phoenix in their first season as members of the Colonial Athletic Association.
After making the jump from the Southern Conference, Elon battled to an eighth place finish a season ago, and seemed to find their footing in the home stretch of a tougher CAA schedule. The Phoenix won their last three conference games of the season, upsetting conference co-champions Northeastern and UNCW in that stretch. A victory in the opening round of the CAA tournament over Towson was followed by a loss to No. 1 seed William & Mary, but Head Coach Matt Matheny had to be happy with how his squad ended the year.
But where things went wrong was in the off-season.
Guard Elijah Bryant, the shining star of Elon’s inaugural CAA season and the conference Rookie of the Year, announced in July that he was transferring to BYU. Bryant (14.2 pts, 4.2 rebs) was the unquestioned go-to scorer for Elon a season ago, and represented the future of Phoenix basketball.
Making the loss even tougher is the departure of two other members of Elon’s starting backcourt to graduation. Guards Austin Hamilton (8.9 pts, 3.1 assists) and Kevin Blake (8.1 pts, 3.5 rebs) have moved on, leaving gaping holes at the guard spots for the Phoenix.
Elon played with four guard sets for much of last season, so an offensive philosophy change could be in order. Luckily for Matheny, though, there are a few a few solid options to replace the production of the aforementioned departures.
Junior guard Luke Eddy, who was averaging 13 points per game on 58% shooting over the first 11 games of last year, will return after a knee injury ended his season in December. Eddy should take over as the primary scorer this season. Senior guard Tanner Sampson, who started 33 games last year and tallied averages of 12.5 points and 4.2 rebounds, looks like another potential leader on offense.
Incoming freshman guards Steven Santa Anna, Sheldon Eberhardt and Dainan Swoope should all have opportunities for playing time this year.
Santa Anna, who received a 3-star designation from ESPN, is the most intriguing option. The 6’4 guard from Charlotte, N.C led Ardrey Kell, to the North Carolina 4A state final in his senior season, and dropped a state-record 44 points in the defeat.
The guard-heavy sets from last season allowed Elon to push the tempo and score frequently; the fast-paced attack racked up 70.6 points per game, the third best clip in the CAA. Santa Anna should provide a spark to the backcourt, as should the development of Eddy, Samson and sophomore Dmitri Thompson (6.1 ppg).
The problems associated with playing so many guards were also apparent last season. While Elon’s fast-paced offense shined, the Phoenix allowed the 2nd most points in the conference.
Things were even worse down low. Without any dominant big men, the Phoenix suffered a negative rebounding margin (8th worst in the conference) and averaged the fewest blocks in the CAA (one full block fewer per game than second-worst JMU). Without an interior presence or solid rim protection, CAA opponents were able to feast down low against the Phoenix.
Power forward Ryan Winters, who started 20 games, has graduated. 6’7 senior C Tony Sabato returns as a starter, but there doesn’t appear to many standout big men on the roster.
Incoming freshman 6’8 F Tyler Seibring and 6’11 F/C Karolis Kundrotas could provide some help. Seibring averaged 13.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game and shot 41% from three in his senior year at Normal Community High in Illinois, and could be a nice inside-outside threat. Kundrotas provides some potential as a post-player and rim protector.
Bottom Line: Losing three full-time starters, especially Bryant, is going to make this season a tough one for the Phoenix. Eddy and Samson should provide some stability in the backcourt, and there are some exciting new recruits, but the overall talent on this squad seems to be lacking. Most of the Phoenix’s out-of-conference wins came against small programs in 2014, and the team struggled once it hit conference play. This may shape up as another rebuilding year for Matheny, as his team continues to adjust to the level of competition in the CAA.