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This is the message coach Mike Schrage has for his Elon Phoenix in Year 2 at the helm, coming off a strong finish to Year 1: “Be confident, not comfortable.”
Elon heads into 2020-21 with justifiable confidence. Picked to finish last in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll a year ago, the Phoenix won five regular-season games from Jan. 25 on to close at seventh.
And while the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the aspirations of many a would-be Cinderella, Elon was one team last March that donned the glass slipper for a bit. The Phoenix reached the CAA semifinal with wins over James Madison and an upset of No. 2 seed William & Mary.
The quarterfinal defeat of the Tribe and CAA Player of the Year Nathan Knight marked two wins for Elon over opponents that just sent stars to NBA rosters. The other came over College of Charleston and Grant Riller during the regular season.
Schrage’s advice speaks to the careful balance a program must navigate when coming off a strong finish. Elon showed it can play with the best in the CAA, but only if it continues the growth shown to that point after a slow start to 2019-20.
If there’s any benefit to taken away from the pandemic, it’s the distance the Phoenix have from those late-season wins.
“It seems like a long time ago, right?” Schrage said at CAA media day.
Indeed, it’s been an especially long eight-plus months; that’s not a timetable conducive to resting on laurels. But here’s the flipside: How does a squad recapture its momentum in an offseason with limited interactions and workouts?
“We were supposed to have a ton of time with our team this summer, and we were looking forward to it,” Schrage said, though he added the Phoenix were “blessed” to have had some more opportunities for walk-throughs than other programs.
Either way, the object is the same: to build off the 2020 finish and not dwell on it. And the Phoenix have some solid pillars to begin that process.
Hunter McIntosh and Hunter Woods emerged as two of the top freshmen in the CAA, both earning postseason recognition on the All-Rookie Team. McIntosh won the Colonial’s Rookie of the Year award after averaging 11.7 points and three assists per game. He also shot better than 40 percent from behind the three-point line.
“Hunter McIntosh had more weight on his shoulders than any freshman I’ve ever coached,” said Schrage. That’s no empty benchmark: Schrage’s career stops before Elon were at Stanford when the Lopez Twins arrived on The Farm, Butler at a time when Kamar Baldwin was there as a freshman, and Ohio State with Kaleb Wesson.
“[McIntosh] handled the ball as a point guard, leading our team, had to score, had to guard the other teams’ best perimeter player,” Schrage said.
The graduation of Marcus Sheffield, who Schrage said played the best individual ball of anyone in the CAA during the final month of last season, has McIntosh primed for any even more prominent role as a sophomore.
“Last year, being a freshman, I might not have been the 1-A on other teams’ scouting reports, but coming into this season, I don’t have that surprise effect anymore,” McIntosh said.
There’s no doubt that any secret about McIntosh that may have facilitated his rise a season ago is gone. Ditto Woods, who averaged north of 10 points per game and almost seven rebounds per game.
Schrage said he anticipates McIntosh and Woods being 1-A and 1-B when opponents game-plan. Schrage the third of a sensational freshman class, Zac Ervin, the 1-C, though Ervin will miss the season after having knee surgery in September.
That puts further emphasis on McIntosh stepping into a banner-carrying role.
“I see it as a challenge, but it’s something I’m built for and feel I’ll do well at,” McIntosh said. “As a freshman, you’re still learning the ropes and learning what works for you and what doesn’t.”
One thing that’s worked for McIntosh is “consistent energy,” the trait he aims to most impart as the top returning scorer to a roster with five freshmen and seven newcomers overall.
But while Elon has some new faces, and the sophomores McIntosh and Woods take on bigger roles, the Phoenix aren’t without reinforcements. One of the responsibilities Schrage said he put on McIntosh as a freshman, defending opponents’ top perimeter scorers, should see some relief with the addition of Ikenna Ndugba.
The transfer from Bryant left with a program-record 140 steals.
Meshing with new teammates isn’t always the most comfortable thing, particularly in an offseason that McIntosh said “obviously wasn’t traditional.” But Elon has plenty of reason for confidence.
Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist in southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.