If you were out celebrating Thanksgiving and/or the Gophers triumph over Butler, you probably assumed our next opponent would be UCLA. That assumption was vanquished by the Portland Pilots in exclamatory fashion. 74-47 was the final score as the Pilots ran UCLA out of the gym.
Introducing the Portland Pilots
So who are these guys? First of all, they play in the West Coast Conference (WCC) and are picked to finish second in the conference to Gonzaga (who won the Maui classic, by the way). Last year, some wondered if Pat Mills and St Mary's might make a legitimate case for an at large bid out of the WCC. That wasn't in the cards, but Portland could make a case this year with wins already over UCLA and Oregon. They also play at #14 Washington next month.
The Pilots return nine (!) upperclassmen, so this clearly seems to be their year to prove something. They are led by 6'4" senior guard Nik Raivio who averaged 16 points a game and 6.5 boards last year and is on a similar pace so far this year.
Raivio's supporting cast includes fellow senior guard TJ Campbell. Campbell averaged 11 points last year and 17 a contest so far this year. The Pilots three guard attack also includes Jared Stohl who also averaged 11 points a game last year and contributed 15 against UCLA on 5-5 shooting from downtown.
Portland's game seems to focus on guard play and outside shooting. They were 11-19 from behind the arc against the Bruins which is no surprise since the Pilots were second in the nation in three-point shooting last year, converting at nearly a 42% clip from three. Other key players are 6'6" forward Ethan Niedermeyer, who also can shoot the long ball (41% last year). On the inside, 6'10" senior Robin Smeulders averaged nearly 11 points a game to go along with 6 boards.
What to Expect
Portland was able to beat UCLA because they out shot them from inside the arc, outside the arc, and the free throw line. But the biggest factor was probably Portland's ability to win the battle of rebounds. Interior play is not the Pilots strength, so any time they can win that battle they will probably win the game because of their strong guard play. The Pilots have the recipe for mid major success: senior leadership and strong guard play, so they should not be taken too lightly. We better not be looking past them to the championship game, or we'll never get there.
This should be an interesting matchup for the Gophers. The Pilots will stretch the floor in the half court to get their jump shots. Rebounding will be a key. We must limit the number of second chances for their guards. Perimeter defense will need to be strong. I am wondering if we might see a press to test Portland's ball handling.
Sampson and Iverson give us an advantage over this team. Perimeter defense is imperative from Nolen, Westbrook, and DJ. If we let them shoot the long ball, they are capable of making a lot of them. We also have more depth than the Pilots, so when their best players are off the floor, we need to outscore them.