While most of the Gonzaga fanbase is focused on Saturday's contest against Butler, the Zags will take on conference rival Portland before hitting the national stage this weekend. While the Pilots aren't expected to present a major challenge to the Bulldogs, the fact that this game comes just before a major game on Saturday and is on the road means anything can happen and that Portland should not be taken lightly.
To this point, the Pilots record and resume does not inspire much. Eight wins, ten losses and a one and two conference record has Portland looking like a team that will be fighting to stay atop the bottom half of the conference. Some of the biggest statistical categories back up that statement as Portland is dead last in the conference in field goal percentage (42%) and one of the worst teams in the entire nation in that statistic. While they have been a solid defensive ball club, holding the opposition to 38% from the floor, they simply haven't been able to muster up enough offensively to be legit contenders.
Portland is paced by junior forward Ryan Nicholas who plays every game against Gonzaga with a little bigger chip on his shoulder. From a recent OregonLive article:
Portland Pilots forward Ryan Nicholas attended high school at Spokane's Gonzaga Prep, which begs the question: why not Gonzaga and its star-studded men's basketball program for college?
Nicholas replies with a simple answer.
"They never recruited me," he said.
During his time at Portland, Nicholas has established himself as one of the hardest working players in the conference. His determination has paid off with some incredible production. So far this year, he is averaging about 13 points and 10 rebounds per game. Portland head coach Eric Reveno calls the somewhat undersized Nicholas a 'natural rebounder' and his performance this year shows why. From the perimeter, look for Kevin Bailey to be the major contributor for the Pilots. He's missed a few games due to a broken nose this year but is averaging about 12 points per game for Portland.
For the Zags, the key in this one is simply to not be looking to Saturday too quickly. As I said in the intro, the fact that this game is on the road adds another layer of danger to this but, in all honesty, it is a game Gonzaga should win with ease. The best case scenario would be for the Zags to come out and dominate this one from the get go and utilize as little energy as possible and rest key contributors. If Portland is able to hang around, it will only make Saturday's quick turnaround that much more difficult. We have seen this team wear down some here and there over the past few games and a let down on the road makes for a tough hill to climb - against Portland or Bulter.