The Humanitarian Bowl should be over or at least in its final stages by the time tip-off roles around tomorrow night, so after you're done being transfixed by a blue football field, come join me at Comcast Center to watch the Terps take on the Elon Phoenix on a more traditionally-colored hardwood court.
The Phoenix (4-4) hail from Elon, North Carolina (about half an hour northeast of Greensboro) and are members of the Southern Conference. They are coached by Ernie Nestor, who is in his sixth season at the helm.
When I spoke with Nestor over the phone on Sunday afternoon, he described his team as "sort of rebounding-challenged" and said containing the Terps' rebounding-wise would be critical because "they do a good job going to the boards."
I asked Nestor if he had yet seen tape of Maryland's game the previous day against Bryant. He said he had not.
Elon has more size on its roster than does Bryant, but that has not translated into better production on the boards. The Phoenix holds a -2.1 average rebounding margin, despite having several veteran post players in its lineup.
Senior guard Brett James (6-foot-5, 185 lbs.) leads the Phoenix on both ends of the court. He averages 16.1 points per game while shooting 49.5 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from three-point range. He also has eight blocks and 15 steals, and his 5.1 rebounds per game tie him for the team lead. He is the reigning Southern Conference player of the week.
"Brett's a 6-5 wing guy that plays on the perimeter, and in our league that's unusual," Nestor said. "Most of our perimeter players are smaller, so he's been able to take advantage of some people inside. He's also developed his perimeter shooing as well, and the evolution of his perimeter shooting the last couple of games has been key to him having the kind of games that he's had. He's shooting much better from the three this year than he ever has before, and that's exciting for us to see."
James shares a majority of the team's scoring load with senior forward Ola Atoyebi (6-foot-8, 220 lbs.), who averages 15.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. Atoyebi is shooting 62.7 percent from the field.
"He's kind of our main guy inside," Nestor said of Atoyebi. "These two kids (James and Atoyebi) carry a lot of the scoring burden for us. They've sort of evolved into that, and they were close to that last year, and they've sort of taken a little bit of a step forward this year in terms of being able to score more for us. All of our other kids are growing into new positions on our team."
Joining Atoyebi in the post for the Phoenix are junior forwards Adam Constantine (6-foot-8, 225 lbs.) and T.J. Douglas (6-foot-6, 215 lbs.). Despite their decent size, neither Constantine (3.9 rpg) nor Douglas (2.8 rpg) has developed into a consistent rebounder for Elon, which is just one of the reasons why Nestor is apprehensive heading into Tuesday night's match-up.
"Quite honestly, offensive rebounding is really what is a big determinant when you look at the different levels of basketball," Nestor said. "When you play up a level, that's always got to be one of your big concerns against anybody you're playing because they're going to have bigger players, stronger, more athletic kids, given the way it's supposed to work out."
Nestor said he hopes the experience his squad gained during contests against high profile teams earlier this season will help prepare it for the physicality it will face Tuesday night against the Terps.
During Elon's season opener Nov. 15 at West Virginia, the Phoenix were out-rebounded, 38-22, and were out-scored in the paint, 40-14. Elon shot 36.4 percent from the field and lost, 92-47.
"That's not exactly the way you want to open your season, but it's just sort of the nature of the beast right now," Nestor said. "So that was a tough opener for us, but they play with a great physicality and we matched that to a point and then we sort of got frustrated because we didn't have success offensively and that affected the way we guarded them and so forth, so it was really difficult."
On Nov. 26, Elon played much tougher against Virginia Tech before falling, 76-67. Still, the Phoenix were out-rebounded, 42-27, and were out-scored in the paint, 42-22. Elon shot 39.2 percent from the field against the Hokies.
"We played better when we played Virginia Tech, which was also a game against that caliber of opponent," Nestor said. "But with Maryland, see, not only are you playing the team that plays at a different level of college basketball, you're playing a team that plays a very unique style for any level of basketball. So you have to be able to play against the style, as well as against the players because of the pressing and so forth. You just don't see teams play that way very often and when you do, it presents a lot of preparation for you."
With Maryland's full-court press in mind, Nestor knows the play of his point guard, sophomore Chris Long (6-foot-2, 185 lbs.) will be crucial. Long has tallied 54 assists to just 21 turnovers this season. He is shooting 38.2 percent from three-point range and is averaging 8.3 ppg. He also has recorded 15 steals.
"He's a guy that people come after," Nestor said of Long. "When you're playing a team that pressures as much as (Maryland) does, your point guard play becomes vital and we're hoping he continues to play well."
Elon, which is shooting 59.6 percent from the free-throw line this season, likely will need a top-flight performance from all of its players Tuesday night to remain competitive against a Maryland squad that, for the most part, has feasted on inferior opponents this year.
"I don't know if there's anything in our favor," Nestor said. "I think the key is just for us to settle into the game and play it and just see how things go. We have to play an outstanding game to have an opportunity to be successful. A mediocre game for us is not going to do it. Against this quality of team we have to play extremely well, and that's our main focus."
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