Elon Men’s Basketball Preview: Phoenix Look To Rise Again In A New Era

Elon men’s basketball could use a boost.

Since becoming a full Division I member at the turn of the century, the Phoenix have mainly known the feeling of the basement throughout program history, with just six winning seasons and no NCAA Tournament appearances.

Four different coaches have tried to lead Elon out of the rut, but to little avail. There have been few exceptions.

With a new leader on the sideline who brings some success, having coached at multiple schools and levels across the college game, perhaps the Phoenix will find themselves slowly rising up the ranks.

Their conference will feature some new blood and old foes this season, and the wins may need to rack up sooner or later, before things grow dire again.

What is there to look out for with Elon men’s basketball this season?

Below is a look into what the Phoenix will bring to the table for the 2022-2023 season, as FloHoops previews every men’s basketball team in the Colonial Athletic Association.

2021 Season Review

The Phoenix likely were hoping that a Brutal non-conference schedule featuring the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Arkansas, among others, would make them battle-tested enough to handle the grind of the CAA slate.

However, it wasn’t to be, as Elon finished 10-21 overall with a 7-11 record in league play, bowing out to UNC Wilmington in its first game of the CAA Tournament.

Coach Mike Schrage, despite being in just his third season in charge and having taken Elon to the 2020-2021 CAA Tournament title game, Resigned after the season and was Hired on as an Assistant under new Coach Jon Scheyer’s staff at Duke.

The Phoenix relied very heavily on the 3-pointer – shooting an average of 24.9 per game, compared to 31.3 2-pointers – but were merely OK to below-average at making them with a 33.1% clip.

Elon also had a tendency of giving opponents free chances at points at the free-throw line, allowing 23.3 foul shots a night for one of the highest averages in America, but without the scoring to keep up.

Fourteen of the Phoenix’s losses were by double digits, and although some of that could be contributed to the non-CAA foes they played, their largest drubbing of the year didn’t come from the Blue Devils or Tar Heels, but Hofstra, which won by 46 on Long Island in February.

Guards Darius Burford and Hunter McIntosh were bright spots, with each being named to the All-CAA third team, but things largely were tough all-around for the Phoenix last season.

On The Court

Even though it felt as if the Schrage era at Elon Barely got off the ground, it’s a new day in Phoenix basketball this season, regardless, as the Athletic department picked former Lehigh and Ball State Coach Billy Taylor to lead the program.

Taylor was hired to the role following his second stint as an Assistant at Iowa under Fran McCaffery, with a three-year head coaching stint at Division II Belmont Abbey College squeezed in-between from 2016-2019.

A two-time Patriot League Coach of the Year with Lehigh, Taylor, who took the Mountain Hawks to the NCAA Tournament during the 2003-2004 season, hasn’t quite achieved those heights while leading a program at the Division I level, but his job at the Division II level has been highly regarded.

Belmont Abbey won 23 games in his final season there, with Taylor building the foundation to enable the Crusaders to go 61-25 in the three seasons since, with three straight NCAA D-II Tournament Appearances from 2020-2022 (the D-II tourney named a field before canceling the 2020 event due to COVID-19), to boot.

Taylor’s teams at Ball State were almost always among the nation’s best at getting to the free-throw line, with his best team in his tenure there (the 2010-2011 team that went 19-13) ranking second in America in free-throw rate at 50.4%, per KenPom.

Taylor has long been connected with McCaffery, coaching either with, or under, him at three different schools, and if the new man on the Phoenix’s sidelines can bring some of his mentor’s highly efficient offense to the school, Elon fans could be in for some exciting hoops.

Key Returner

Torrence Watson, G/F, Gr., St. Louis

Watson has consistently felt like a player on the cusp of a breakout, showing flashes throughout his career of the talent that made him a highly sought after four-star recruit in high school and earned him offers from a wealth of high-major programs.

At Missouri, he started games and even set a Mizzou Arena record of eight 3-pointers in a single night in 2019, but he ultimately fell out of favor with then-coach Cuonzo Martin and transferred to Elon.

In his first season with the Phoenix this last year, Watson set career highs in scoring (9.2), rebounds (3.0) and minutes (25.2) per game, but an injury ultimately ended his season after 20 games.

Now a fifth-year player and the returning scorer on an Elon team full of rotation, both on the sideline and the court, the 2022-2023 season may be the season Watson has to break out.

He’s certainly capable of putting up a point haul. His 34 points against High Point in December of last year was a career high, and with Burford, McIntosh and other key contributors now out of the picture due to graduation or transfers, Watson may have to shoulder more of the scoring load as one of the team’s most experienced players.

A big part of that will be how well he shoots from deep. His freshman-year mark behind the 3-point line of 36.1% with Missouri remains the best of his career thus far.

If Watson can get back to that mark, or even eclipse it, it should add an extra dimension to his game that’ll make him even more important to Elon’s season-long trajectory.

Key Addition

Sean Halloran, G, Gr., Orlando, Florida

One of two players on this year’s Elon roster who formerly took the court for Taylor at Belmont Abbey, Halloran – along with former Crusaders and UNC Wilmington big man John Bowen III – already have established rapport with their Coach and both like him (and are presumably good) enough to follow him to a Division I program.

Halloran is the more intriguing of the two transfers, however, mainly due to the fact that he was a downright stud in his four years at the D-II level.

The Floridian never dipped below double-digit averages in scoring in any college season, finished his career at Belmont Abbey as the program’s all-time assists leader, and he finished with a 42% rate from 3-point range for his Crusaders career, including a white-hot 52.7% from beyond the arc on 91 attempts last season. That would’ve been the top mark across all three NCAA divisions, had he hit the minimum Qualifying requirement of 100 3-pointers taken.

How quickly Halloran adapts to the speed and physicality of the Division I game is an obvious question mark, but the scoring and shooting pedigree is there, added in with the fact that Taylor knew how to use him well in the Lone season they worked together ( 2018-2019).

On top of all of that, Halloran should be a solid ball defender, as well, as his 147 career steals ranked second all-time in Belmont Abbey history.

Game To Watch: Elon vs. North Carolina A&T, 7 p.m. Jan. 11

Strange but true: despite the campuses being separated by less than 20 miles, North Carolina A&T and Elon’s men’s basketball programs have never played each other.

And, while part of that is due to the fact Elon didn’t become a full member of Division I until 1999, it’s still a bit peculiar that two DI schools essentially in each other’s backyards have never squared off.

That all changes this season as A&T embarks on a debut campaign in the CAA, having departed the Big South, with the two teams set to duke it out for the very first time early in 2023 at the Schar Center in Elon.

The Aggies suddenly have a new leader in interim head Coach Phillip Shumpert, after outgoing Coach Will Jones was fired in August, just a few weeks before the official start of practices. Reasons for his departure still fairly unclear.

Jones did leave behind a few big-time recruits for a school of A&T’s caliber, however.

Redshirt freshman forward Duncan Powell will aim to have a highly anticipated full season under his belt after a knee injury prevented the former four-star prospect – and highest-rated Recruit in school history – from playing during the 2021-2022 season.

With former top-100 Recruit and redshirt junior Marcus Watson (12.6 points, 6.0 rebounds per game) back in the mix on top of it, Elon is going to have its hands full trying to contain the Aggies’ firepower.

But even as there’s literally no history or prior animosity between the two teams, perhaps the proximity of the schools will bring some bite out on the court and create an atmosphere in which anything and everything can happen.

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