ELON, N.C.--One of the rivalries that seemingly produces the best games each year is the one between the Elon Phoenix (7-3) and UNCG Spartans (4-6), although now it is a non-conference rivalry instead of being a Southern Conference rivalry.
The Series: The two schools are separated by about a 30-minute drive, and when the two square off at 1 p.m. Saturday, it will mark the 39th all-time meeting between the two programs, with Elon holding a commanding 25-13 all-time series edge. The Phoenix claimed a 71-64 win at the Greensboro Coliseum last season, and the first-ever meeting in the rivalry occurred in the 1971-72 season.
Elon has owned the series as of late, winning the last 11 in the series, dating back to the a time when the two rivals played as Southern Conference foes. The last time the Spartans got a win in the series came on January 18, 2010, when UNCG posted a 63-55 win at the Greensboro Coliseum.
In the meeting between the two last season, it was UNCG's Kayel Locke that led the Spartans with 17 points and nine boards, but it wasn't enough to overcome what was a poor shooting night for the Spartans, as UNCG connected on just 33.3% (19-of-57) from the field in the loss.
The Coaches: The two coaches are two of the youngest in college basketball, as Elon's Matt Matheny (93-100) and UNCG's Wes Miller (49-70) are two of the rising stars in the college basketball coaching ranks. Both coaches have introduced an exciting brand of basketball at their respective programs, and both figure to have their programs in the thick of the two programs' conference races this winter.
Previewing The UNCG: The Spartans are off to a 4-6 overall start this season, and are coming off a tough 81-71 loss to ACC foe Wake Forest last time out at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum. It was a herculean effort from forward Kayel Locke (12.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG), who posted a career-high 25 points, but it wouldn't be enough. Locke is one of premier big men in the Southern Conference, and he has had to shoulder much more of the scoring load, when it was learned that All-SoCon guard Tevin Saddler left the program just prior to the season.
Saddler's odd decision left Miller and the Spartans in a precarious situation just prior to the season, and many held the belief that UNCG had enough to be a darkhorse for the Southern Conference title with him. That might still be a reality, but it will now be much tougher. Last season, Saddler battled injuries but managed to finish the season as the team's leading scorer, averaging 13.4 PPG and added 4.6 PPG and led the team in assists (123) and steals (46).
The Spartans have only one Division I win on the campaign, which was a 71-69 win over Atlantic Sun member Jacksonville. The other three wins have come against Greensboro College (W, 86-69), Chowan (W, 81-60) and Belmont Abbey (W, 84-61). Losses have come at Central Florida (L, 65-54), Navy (L, 70-66), IPFW (L, 64-58), at North Carolina A&T (L, 77-68), at High Point (L, 90-72) and at Wake Forest (L, 81-71).
Locke has been the centerpiece of the Spartan offense this season, as the 6-5, 240-lb senior forward enters the Saturday matinee matchup with the Phoenix as one of four Spartans averaging in double figures (12.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG). Locke is a player that can step out and shoot the perimeter shot, however, he is hitting just 29.2% (7-of-24) from downtown through the first 10 games this season.
Locke teams with a player that I think might be the most versatile big man in the Southern Conference, in terms of what he can do in the low-post along with his ability to step out and hit the three, in . White came into the week ranking second in the Southern Conference in field goal percentage (56.3%), but has shot only nine three-pointers this season, going 2-for-9 from beyond the arc.
The backcourt for the Spartans will be comprised of a talented trio of guards, led by veterans Diante Baldwin (10.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 102 assists, 21 steals) and Marvin Smith (9.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG), who have had to step things up offensively with Saddler having suddenly quit the team. Baldwin currently ranks third in the Southern Conference in assists average per game, dishing out 4.2 helpers-per-game.
Baldwin really started to come into his own as a player in the Spartans' backcourt last season, and about the only thing Baldwin has struggled to do this season is effectively shoot the ball from the perimeter, hitting just 4-of-22 shots (18.2%) from downtown this season. Last time out for the Spartans, Baldwin posted 14 points, dished out six assists and recorded three steals in the 10-point loss to Wake Forest. Baldwin has four double-figure games this season, and his season-high 16 points recently in a loss to High Point. He had a career-high 11 rebounds in a loss earlier this season to Central Florida.
The starting five for the Spartans will be rounded out by freshman Francis Alonso (11.5 PPG, 1.3 RPG). The 6-3 wing guard has been one of the best freshman guards in the Southern Conference through the early portion of the campaign, and Alonso has had an outstanding season shooting the basketball to this point this season, ranking third in the SoCon three-point field goals made (26) and ranks seventh in the league in three-point field goal percentage, connecting on 44.6% from long range this season. Alonso had his best performance of his career with 25 points in a loss earlier this season to city rival North Carolina A&T.
Off the bench, the Spartans have utilize another of the league's most talented young guards, in freshman guard Demetrius Troy (5.4 PPG, 2.2 RPG) and center Jordy Kuiper (3.0 PPG, 2.5 RPG). Kuiper is an effective scorer underneath the basket at times in his career but the big Dutchman battled injuries last season.
As a team, the Spartans rank eighth in the SoCon in scoring offense (71.1 PPG), while the 70.6 PPG allowed by the Spartans this season ranks fifth in the SoCon. The Spartans are shooting 42.8% (5th in SoCon) in field goal percentage, while opponents shoot 45.8% (8th in SoCon in FG% defense) against the Spartans this season. Finally, the Spartans have shot the ball extremely well from the outside decide the the graduation of Nikos Paulos, ranking second in the SoCon in three-point field goal percentage (34.7%/90-of-259). The Spartans rank ninth in the league as a team in defending the three (37.8%).
Previewing The Phoenix: Elon comes into Saturday's matinee meeting between the two rivals led by one of the best guards in mid-major basketball, in Tanner Sampson (16.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG). Sampson will be part of a trio in the backcourt that head coach Matt Matheny hopes will improve on the 14-18 record of a year ago endured by the basketball proud tradition of Elon.
The Phoenix come in with a 7-3 record, and a team starting to play well on both ends of the floor. The Phoenix have wins over Alabama State (W, 91-74), Belmont Abbey (W, 84-57), Mount St. Mary's (W, 79-74), Kennesaw State (W, 103-93, OT), Florida International (W, 77-71), Charlotte (W, 85-74) and Wesley College (W, 106-77). Losses this season have come to No. 24 Michigan (L, 88-68), Syracuse (L, 66-55) and Texas A&M Corpus Christi (L, 79-74).
The last time out, the Phoenix were 17-point winners over Alabama State last time out, placing four in double figures in the process, led by Sampson's game-high 22 points. Sampson connected on six of the team's 18 triples in the win.
Samson is one of the best shooters in mid-major college basketball, and has connected on 36-of-86 three-point field goals so far this season, which converts to 41.9% from three-point range this season. Sampson teams with sophomore Dmitri Thompson (9.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG) and junior Luke Eddy (10.3 PPG, 3.6 APG) in the backcourt. Samson set the program's all-time three-point field goals mark against FIU in a win, and now has 278 career treys. He surpassed the program's previous record-holder Jack Isenbarger, who had 264-career triples.
Eddy will run the point guard position for the Phoenix and is one of three players averaging in double digits for the Phoenix, and set career highs for assists (9) and rebounds (7) the last time out against Alabama State. Eddy, who transferred from George Washington, has struggled shooting the ball from long range this season, having connected on just 6-of-20 from three-point land this season.
Thompson rounds out the backcourt for Elon, and he scored in double digits in the first four games of the season, including a caree-high 21 points against Charlotte. However, has had just one double-figure scoring performance since, with 17 against Wesley College a couple of games back. He has set nine new career-highs as a sophomore this season after averaging 6.1 PPG and 3.7 RPG last season.
Rounding out the starters will be both senior Ryan Seibring (6.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG) and junior Christian Hairston (9.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG) underneath the basket. Hairston, a product of Greensboro Day, had the best game of his career earlier this season against Kennesaw State, scoring a career-high 21 points and posted a career-high 13 rebounds for a second-career double-double.
Seibring is a veteran and has found his way into double digits three times this season, including last time out against Alabama State, posting 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting from the field and 4-for-9 from three-point range.
The leading player off the bench is also Elon's second-leading scorer, in 6-0 point guard Dainan Swoope (12.2 PPG, 2.6 RPG), who like Samson, is three-point specialist, having connected on 27 triples this season and is shooting 39.1% (27-of-69) from three-point land this season. Both Samson and Swoope have connected on 63 of the team's 111 triples this season, and the team is shooting 35.2% (111-of-315) from three-point land this season. One-hundred and eleven of the team's 282 field goals this season are from three-point land.
The Phoenix are averaging 82.9 PPG as a team and shooting 44.1% from the floor on the season. The Phoenix are surrendering 75.9 PPG to opponents this season.
WHO WINS: ELON 81, UNCG 77