I'm sure that many college basketball fans would not have been the least bit surprised that Gonzaga would head into the second half of WCC play in 1st place. However, I'm not sure that any fan would have guessed that it would be the Portland Pilots who are in firm control of second place, and only trail the Zags by one game. When the Zags and Pilots battle tomorrow night, it will be the biggest game that the Portland Pilots have played in the last 20 years. What makes this game so interesting is the fact that both teams have so much riding on the outcome.
When you watch the Portland Pilots play, it's easy to see how this team has become a reflection of head coach Eric Reveno. The former Stanford assistant has a team that reminds me of the successful Stanford teams of the 90's. The successful Stanford teams were known for hard working big guys, and solid guard play. This Portland Pilots team will not beat itself by turning the ball over, and they do a terrific job of playing to their strengths.
The Pilots are lead by the terrific Nik Raivio, who has been arguably the top performer in the WCC over the past month. Raivio, who is averaging 16.5 points and 6.7 rebounds, was dominant in wins over San Diego and St. Mary's last week. While Raivio has the stats and the name that grabs attention, T.J. Campbell has to be considered one of the most important members of the Pilots rotation. The JC transfer gives this team a true floor general, and a PG that has the quickness and decision making to match any of the other guards in the conference. Typically, guys like Jeremy Pargo and Patty Mills could easily assert their dominance over whoever was playing PG for the Pilots. With T.J. Campbell in the fold, that is no longer the case.
Robin Smeulders provides Portland with one of the more active "bigs" in the conference. Although he doesn't have the type of game that will impress opposing fans, Smeulders does a great job of finishing around the basket. He also has an uncanny ability to get his hands on every loose ball around the rim, and plays with a physical edge that can bother many of his opponents. The one guy that the Zags need to keep under control is Jared Stohl. Stohl, who is probably the best pure shooter in the conference, has the type of game that the Zags have struggled with in recent history. Stohl has the ability to get open and lose his defender, and he will hit nearly every open shot he is given, as shown by his 9 three-pointers against USF.
With the huge game against Memphis on the horizon, it's vital that the Zags do not overlook this Portland team. Eric Reveno has the Pilots playing great basketball, but this team is still a year away from being able to win this conference. I expect Coach Few to have this team focused on the task at hand, and the Zags should come away with a 72-59 win.