At the turn of this century, Elon University changed its nickname to the Phoenix, an ode to the school’s restoration after a devastating 1923 fire.
Maybe then there’s an inherent spirit of rejuvenation that comes with Elon. The 2019-20 Phoenix basketball team reflects it, anyway.
First-year Elon coach Mike Schrage said on Feb. 3, “that spirit’s not going to be broken” in reference to his team’s ability to rebound from losses. As the campaign hits its home stretch, and the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament looms in Washington D.C., the Phoenix are rising from earlier struggles.
“Collectively, our attitude has been great,” said Hunter McIntosh, who on Feb. 17 earned his third CAA Freshman of the Week honor on the campaign. “Early season, there were definitely some struggles, some hurdles. But we’ve always had a positive attitude.”
Elon won just four non-conference games, and dropped a number of especially close contests: Manhattan and Winthrop by five points each; High Point by four. CAA play began for the Phoenix with a 74-73 defeat against William & Mary.
A young roster – three of the top four scoring Phoenix are freshmen, including McIntosh at 10.6 points per game – could have easily been rattled through those first two months. But Elon’s collective emphasis of building, a term Schrage has used, kept the Phoenix steady.
“That came from the top down, and that’s the kind of person coach Schrage is,” McIntosh said. “He instilled that in us.”
Schrage was officially introduced as Elon’s coach last April, his first head-coaching opportunity in a career that included tenures with Mike Krzyzewski as a director of basketball operations; as an assistant to Johnny Dawkins at Stanford; and then working with Chris Holtmann at both Butler and Ohio State.
Schrage came to Butler with Holtmann well after the Bulldogs solidified their reputation as a perennial contender. He began at Stanford one season after the Cardinal reached the Sweet 16, and Schrage’s time at Duke began after the Blue Devils’ third national championship under Coach K.
His duties at Elon would take on a much different face in Year 1.
“Very process-driven this year, not result-drive,” Schrage said in January.
Not to go all Joel Embiid, though, the process at Elon is beginning to produce the results.
Since Jan. 25, the Phoenix are winners in 5-of-7 CAA games, including a 74-69 defeat of Northeastern on Feb. 1; a 72-65 road victory against Charleston on Feb. 8; and a come-from-behind, 75-70 defeat of Drexel on Feb. 15.
McIntosh has been a crucial force in Elon’s success, scoring 24 points in the win over Northeastern and 18 against Drexel.
“At the beginning of the year, I let other defenses, other guards, try to dictate my game,” McIntosh said. “Over the last three or four weeks especially, when conference [competition] started, just been playing my pace, getting back to basics, playing my game.”
To see his production, or Hunter Woods posting 10.3 points and a team-high 6.2 rebounds per game, or sophomore Kris Wooten bringing a spark, it’s hard not to see the bright future rising in what Elon is building.
Add what a chaotic season 2019-20 has been, meanwhile, and that future has the prospect of turning into the present quickly.
Why not Elon in the NCAA Tournament? All the Phoenix need is to pull off a winning streak in D.C., which their play in February suggests they can do.
“It comes down to the tournament, in that sense,” McIntosh said. “Those three, four days in D.C. is all that matters. Everything behind you doesn’t really translate.”
Although they will need to play big on a day beside Saturday. Schrage noted on Feb. 3 that the next step Elon needs to take is playing well on the Thursday half of weekend sets – though the team’s repeated ability to rebound on Saturday, he added, is symbolic of its resilience.
Making that next step and bringing the same fire every time out is another phase in an ongoing process. And that process has Elon positioned for a sustained rise.
“The biggest thing we can get from a strong finish – wherever that finish is – it’s a starting point for next season,” McIntosh said. “We’re playing well to end this season, and that’s just building on next season. We know what we’re capable of.”