Russell Phillips typically expects freshmen big men to have a tough time adapting to the Division III level.

But for Elliot Bowen, the adjustment to playing for Phillips on the Alfred University men’s basketball team hasn’t taken very long, starting every game for the Saxons this season. The 6-foot-6 Ellicottville graduate earned immediate playing time and backed it up with both offense (10 points on 57 percent shooting) over his 22 minutes per game. For his quickly-apparent impact inside, Bowen earned the Empire 8 Rookie of the Year Award.

Phillips, the Saxons’ fifth-year coach, pointed to Bowen’s roots to explain how well he played in his first collegiate season.

“I texted coach (Dave) McCann over at Ellicottville when he won it,” Phillips said of his award-winning big man, “and let him know that I thought he did a great job with him in high school in getting him ready because came in as one of the most ready big guys I’ve ever seen at the college level … very fundamental, very even-keeled, he plays really, really hard and wants to do well. But he doesn’t get too emotional one way or the other, which I think is a really positive trait. If he misses a couple shots or has a turnover, he’s going to take that next shot and the numbers he’s put up speak for themselves

“I think his background he came in with and his mental approach really allowed him to blossom this year.”

Bowen’s rim protection was been a key part of Alfred’s 14-game winning streak through the first round of the NCAA Division III Tournament. AU’s streak included an Empire 8 Championship Tournament victory over St. John Fisher on Saturday, Feb. 23, which earned the Saxons a bid to the NCAA tourney. AU defeated Ramapo College in the NCAA first round on Friday, 92-76, then fell to Christopher Newport on Saturday, 88-53.

Over the win streak, Bowen averaged 1.6 blocks. The high mark came against Ramapo, when he turned away six shots.

“It all started with our defense,” Phillips said of the streak. “Our associate head coach, Mike Romano, does a great job with the defensive side of the ball and we’ve been able to kind of take that next jump; Elliot, in particular, has done a really good job kind of protecting the rim and we’ve been able to go out and guard the arc from there.

“Then we started shooting the 3 a bit better. We didn’t shoot it great first semester, we thought we were below our number, that’s kind of caught up. We’ve been shooting it really well and I think when those two things are going for you, the confidence has been building and it just kind of took off from there.”

Alfred finished the season 24-5.

“It was a real surreal experience,” Phillips said winning the E8. “I know the guys have put in a ton of work to get to that point, getting to the playoffs last year and losing by one on the road the way we did, I think really lit a fire under them for this year and I think it was just a lot of gratification from being able to get it done, especially on our home court with all the support we’re getting from the community, it really meant a lot to our guys.”

Bowen said he didn’t imagine an E8 title or a trip to the NCAA Tournament as a freshman when he chose Alfred.

“It’s been unreal,” he said. “It’s definitely been exciting.

“I didn’t even think about it (being a possibility) but we built habits in practice, which led us to winning.”

Since getting to college, Bowen has tried to match the athleticism of quicker opponents.

“Definitely being quicker, more physical, because teams are bigger and faster,” he said.

“The first couple weeks, our assistant coach doesn’t care about matchups so I was just guarding guards, quick guards, and that kind of helped.”

Phillips thinks playing against more players his size has actually benefited Bowen after years of seeing undersized high school squads.

“His biggest adjustment was going against guys his size or bigger, which obviously he didn’t see a lot of,” Phillips said. “He saw a lot of double and triple-teams. He got beat up pretty good in high school, but going against guys the same size, I actually think it helped him because he could kind of feel them with his back. It wasn’t like he had a 6-foot kid on him, because sometimes that’s tougher for big guys. 

“The bigger bodies, he’s responded well to that, and then it’s usually just the physicality and the speed of which your decisions have to be made. So he kind of picked up on that stuff pretty quick and now I think his next step is teams are going to start doubling him and digging down a lot more … being able to handle that.”