Welcome to 2015 everyone! What better way to celebrate then to get the win-streak jump started against the Portland Pilots again, as the Gonzaga Bulldogs play their third-straight away game in conference play on Saturday.
It isn't a phrase I like to use often, but realistically you could say that Gonzaga owned Portland for the past two decades. They rented out Chiles Center for one night every year and invited the Portland Pilots along so that all of Gonzaga's friends in Oregon could watch the Bulldogs mash out victory, after victory. For 20 straight games, the Zags did this. In fact, when I wrote this game preview post last year, I got to talk about how the last time the Pilots won was back on Jan. 27, 1996.
Portland re-wrote the narrative last year. Now, we can only say that the Bulldogs have a one-game winning streak against Portland and the last time the Pilots beat Gonzaga was on Jan. 9, 2014. Then, when the rematch in Spokane happened, Portland laughed away a 22-point deficit like it was nothing and Gonzaga squeaked away with a five-point win. But that was 2014. 2015 is a different year -- hopefully.
Meet the opponent
Portland Pilots, 10-4, KenPom #120
The Pilots are having a surprisingly strong year. They've own a solid win over Murray State and pushed both UNLV and Oregon State to overtime before eventually falling. A lot of this has been pushed by the growth of sophomore point guard Alec Wintering, who averages 12.9 points and 5.1 assists per game. Wintering is taking better shots, and is draining over 50 percent of his three point attempts. He is also one of the more tenacious back court defenders in the WCC and will be giving Pangos fits all game. In those awkward times when Pangos isn't the one bringing the ball up the court, Wintering could be an issue.
The Pilots also match up quite well with the Bulldogs down in the post, and are one of the few teams in the WCC with the height to compete. Seniors Volodymyr Gerun and Thomas van der Mars both stand at 6'10, and will make it hard for Przemek Karnowski and Kyle Wiltjer to get their game flow running. Gerun may hale from the Dnipropetrovsk High College of Physical Culture in Ukraine, but his extra work down low is also one of the big reasons for Portland's improved play. He averages 10.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game and is a dangerous shooter, hitting 57 percent from the floor and 71 percent form the free throw line.
Because of that improvement, Portland hasn't had to use van der Mars as often. He sitll averages 10.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game and is one of the better offensive rebounders in the league. Round that out with senior guard Kevin Bailey, and you have a pretty complete squad. In fact, this is that cycle year for Portland. Once you get past that experience, it is a steep drop off.
The four factors
All statistics come from Ken Pomeroy's site.
|eFG%||57.4 (10)||51.0 (84)|
|TO%||17.4 (50)||18.4 (84)|
|OR%||38.1 (24)||35.4 (65)|
|FTR||34.8 (231)||30.7 (301)|
What to watch out for
Portland actually keeping pace for 40 minutes.
It is hard to know whether or not this will actually happen. In the Zags loss against the Pilots last year the Zags were a bit flat and caught off guard. Portland shot the ball better, hit their free throws and came away with a court storming victory. In the repeat, it seemed like Gonzaga had washed away the sins of the loss, but then suddenly Portland charged back from a 22-point deficit to make it a game.
Pretty much the entire team from last season's upset is back for round three. On paper, Portland matches up well enough with Gonzaga that if the team is smartly executing on offense, they will stick around. Gonzaga needs to just put its nose to the grind stone and play their offensive sets like they want to. If that happens, Gonzaga wins. If there is another nine-minute field goal drought (like what happened last year), Portland might squeak away with another upset.
How many threes does Wiltjer take this game?
It isn't often that a team can counter Gonzaga's three big men with three equally big men of its own, but Portland can. After van der Mars and Gerun, there is still senior backup Riley Barker standings at 6'10. The post game is going to be hard to come by in this matchup, and this is where the versatility and shooting touch of Wiltjer should shine the most. After taking just one three point attempt against Cal Poly, Wiljter has attempted 11 in his past two games. This is another game where I imagine the big man hanging a bit around the back of the line for the open shot.
Time for Byron Wesley to take advantage.
Like a lot of schools in the WCC, Portland is a bit weak at the winger position. The Zags would be smart to exploit the matchup right at the start. Wesley will be matched against freshman forward Jason Todd, who is still having a few learning pains to get through. After Todd, he passes the buck to junior Bryce Pressley. Neither players are great defenders and this is the perfect game to exploit that.
Time: 6:30 p.m. PT
Radio: AM 1510 KGA (Spokane), AM 880 KIXI (Seattle), AM 1360 KUIK (Portland)