On Sunday morning, I woke up at 9 a.m. and headed nearly four hours north to Elon. Normally I would try to stay closer to home, even settling for a women's game or a non-Division I game. But there were absolutely no basketball games in the state of South Carolina, so I decided to head to North Carolina. My initial plan when I outlined my season itinerary was to do two games, Elon at 2 p.m. and N.C. State at 6 p.m. While I have seen the Wolfpack at home this year and have been to the RBC Center, I have never seen NCSU play at the RBC Center. This makes NC State the closest Division I school to me that I have never seen play at their regular home. But after reading Matt Cayuela's recap and his problems he encountered there, I decided it was probably best not to do both games back-to-back. And from reading Matt's recap, I could also see that RBC Center had many similarities to Nationwide Arena in Columbus, a place I did not care for much. So in order to save money for more 800 Games Project visits, I decided to settle for just a trip to Elon. In terms of driving time, this is my longest trip this season outside of my family vacation to the Midwest over Christmas (although UNC Asheville later this month will be longer in mileage).
This was not my first visit to Elon, but rather my seventh. But the last time I was at Alumni Gym was nearly four years ago on Valentine's Day in 2008, when the Phoenix topped Appalachian State 76-70. Since graduating from High Point, I have not visited either of the SoCon teams in the area that I frequently visited when I was at HPU (UNC Greensboro being the other). Alumni Gym, located in the school's main athletic building the Koury Center, has, like the Millis Center in High Point, had recent renovations. Previously only the balcony had seats, while downstairs seating was all bleachers. Today every seat is cushioned, and the downstairs seating wraps around towards the main entrance of the gym. Like at High Point, Elon has four video boards, although two of them serve primarily as the gym's scoreboards. Yet the arena is much like I remembered it before. It is still the smallest gym in the Southern Conference, with a capacity of less than 1,600. When I saw my ticket was for Row F, I knew that I would be at the top of the downstairs seating from having had Row F seats before at Alumni Gym. The building aside from the new seating and video boards looks pretty much the same as it did. It is still a fairly dimly lit gym with carpeted walkways around it.
But the visit I will always remember most was my first visit to Elon, on a student bus trip from High Point. Elon's students stood opposite from us in the downstairs bleachers, and they were paying close attention to us. The Elon students looked to try to pick a fight with us, led by a guy with an erasable whiteboard making anti-High Point signs that were not meant to heckle the Panther players, but rather our students. Some of their signs did not make sense, such as a school taunting a local high school. The vast majority of HPU students do not come from High Point itself, so few in our section knew what Andrews High School was. Then the guy held up a sign that said "We are smarter than you." Most of our fans could not figure this out, but I figured that is was reference to the higher admissions standards at Elon. And to make that point clear, the students started chanting "SAT scores!" at us. Of student section chants, this made the least sense since there are a wide variety of academic backgrounds at both schools. Our students initially responded "Scoreboard!" (we had a slight lead), and later followed up with the great comeback, "Daddy's money!" Both High Point and Elon have student bodies made up of students from wealthy families more than most schools, but Elon certainly has the edge in this regard. Most Elon students are attracted to the well-maintained campus as a way to be better-connected socially with most students joining Greek organizations. High Point managed to hang on for a two-point win, which was really satisfying after all of this. This would be the one road victory we had on the bus trips I went on.
And what I really disliked from that visit was the smac that Elon directed at us that was not about basketball. Talking smac about academics is never a good idea, especially at a basketball game. The problem I have with such smac is that academic success is often rooted in our backgrounds. The schools with the highest SAT scores have the wealthiest students around (Daddy's money!) while there are schools far below High Point in academic standing that mostly draw blue-collar commuters or poor students. Many students who do well in school are not smarter than those who are not as successful academically, but either have extra help or special skills to help advance themselves academically. Taunting others over their potential lacking of that ability is not a very nice thing to do when watching basketball.
What the Elon students exhibited that night in December 2005 smacked of elitism. And elitism is not something we need to have at the mid-major level. Most schools above the Red Line are better than our schools academically, and are so for the same exact reason they are ahead of us athletically: money. The major schools through various mechanisms, whether through sports, academics, or other reasons, can attract more students and be more picky about which students they accept. And the same goes for hiring prospective faculty, staff, and coaches. And one thing all of us need to remember, including those of us at schools like Elon, is this quote from Kyle in the epilogue for the original 100 Games Project:
"Even the young men and women who choose a regionally prestigious private college don't realize how much they've hemmed themselves in. Despite all the late nights they've spent poring over admissions brochures, most don't have the years in them to see the real big picture - the power of talismans and symbols like fight songs, research dollars and nationwide prestige usually don't register at that age. Go 250 miles in any direction from campus, and prospective employers likely have never heard of the place. What's a Bucknell, anyway?"
But today the Phoenix would face Columbia from the Ivy League. The Ivy League is an exception to the status of mid-majors in name recognition. All eight schools are well-known worldwide for their superior academics, and being able to refer to their conference name shows what great standing they are as an institution of higher education. Elon is as a school much closer to lesser-known private schools such as High Point than they are to elite Ivy League schools like Columbia. During the game I sat with an Elon season-ticket holder, as well as the father of Columbia center Mark Cisco. From the conversations we had, Cisco loved his visits to Elon and was very close to becoming a Phoenix, but getting accepted to an Ivy League school was just too good an offer to pass up. I don't know if people ask what an Elon is, but the obscurity of the school when it joined Division I is why I decided to play as the Phoenix on a PlayStation game when I was in high school. My two most lopsided victories in the game were over High Point, which helped give HPU name recognition to me when the school sent me brochures in the mail.
Yet Elon seems to consider themselves as an elite school, and is trying to distance themselves from their old rivals. After completing the home-and-home by coming to the Millis Center the following in December 2006, High Point and Elon have not faced each other in men's basketball over the past five years despite being traditional rivals. High Point has played Elon more than any other school in its history and joined Division I at the same time when they both joined the Big South in 1999. But Elon has tried to distance themselves from their past since joining the SoCon in 2003. Today would be their third game this year against an Ivy League school, having won at Princeton and lost at Dartmouth. But Elon did not schedule any games against Big South teams this season, teams that would be closer by and games that would be better for the fans.
Last year in New York, Elon won at the buzzer to beat the Lions. Despite the close game, I expected that a respectable Elon team that pulled a RLU against South Carolina to be able to hold home court easily against an Ivy League team that does not figure to challenge Harvard or any of the traditional Ivy hoops powers this year. Yet the Phoenix, who like Charleston Southern had their students returning this weekend, never seemed to grab the momentum. Elon led most of the game, but never was able to go on a run that could put the Lions away.
Not being able to outrun Columbia would turn out to cost the Phoenix big. Cisco matched up very physically with Elon big man Lucas Troutman in a contest so physical that the game had to be stopped once to clean the blood from both their jerseys. The 6-foot-9 Cisco seemed to get the best of the 6-foot-10 Troutman, which left the door open for Lions guard Brian Barbour to hit clutch shots that put Columbia ahead just before the final media timeout. Columbia extended their lead to four in the final minute, and hurting Elon was their lack of second-half fouls, forcing them to foul the Lions five times before finally getting Columbia to shoot free throws. Columbia made most of their free throws while Elon was not able to respond until the buzzer, and at that point it was too late. Columbia had a 65-60 victory, and the Ivy League got another big victory for the 2011-12 season. The Ivy League may not focus on basketball and does not allow scholarships, but they have an advantage over the rest of Our Game in the superior quality that their institutions provide. They may not have the best athletes, but they are always well-trained and well prepared to be successful in all endeavors and that has shown on the basketball court this year.
I hope not to be too hard on Elon, as aside from those students I encountered six years ago everyone else I have met there seems friendly and likable. I went to Alumni Gym five times my senior year at High Point, and it was nice to refresh on memories I had from when I was in college and traveled around North Carolina's Piedmont Triad. It is good to every now and then get away from South Carolina and see the rest of Hoops Nation, and to reacquaint myself with places once very familiar. Every time I have gone to Elon I have enjoyed my visit, even that one back in December 2005 as High Point won that game. And a reminder: it is great to be at an academically successful school, but don't do the academic equivalent of jersey-popping when you talk about it.
COLUMBIA 65, at ELON 60 01/08/2012
COLUMBIA 11-5 (0-0) -- B. Barbour 6-11 6-6 20; M. Lyles 3-6 1-2 8; A. Rosenberg 2-8 0-1 5; J. Daniels 1-4 4-4 6; M. Cisco 9-11 0-1 18; N. Springwater 1-3 0-0 3; C. Osetkowski 2-3 1-1 5; D. Kowalski 0-0 0-0 0; B. Staab 0-2 0-0 0; M. Johnson 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-49 12-15 65. ELON 7-7 (2-1) -- A. Hamilton 6-11 1-1 15; S. Koch 1-8 0-0 2; L. Troutman 7-16 0-0 14; J. Isenbarger 3-7 0-0 6; D. Spradlin 1-10 0-0 3; R. Beaumont 4-10 2-4 10; R. Dugas 1-4 0-0 3; B. Ervin 1-2 0-0 3; E. Edomwonyi 2-5 0-0 4; K. Blake 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-73 3-5 60.
Three-point goals: COLU 5-12 (M. Johnson 0-1; B. Barbour 2-3; M. Lyles 1-3; A. Rosenberg 1-4; N. Springwater 1-1), ELON 5-18 (D. Spradlin 1-1; B. Ervin 1-2; R. Dugas 1-4; R. Beaumont 0-1; J. Isenbarger 0-3; S. Koch 0-4; A. Hamilton 2-3); Rebounds: COLU 29 (M. Cisco 8), ELON 38 (L. Troutman 7); Assists: COLU 14 (B. Barbour 4), ELON 9 (A. Hamilton 4); Total Fouls -- COLU 8, ELON 16; Fouled Out: COLU-None; ELON-None.