Portland, Gonzaga hoping to return favors

It must be fun playing for Eric Reveno’s Portland Pilots these days. With no pretensions of WCC title contention (5-9 in the standings) and a rotation that includes all 13 players on the roster, the atmosphere seems more like tryouts than league competition.

Combine that atmosphere with a lack of expectations and you get a free-wheeling group that lives to spoil the dreams of teams ahead of them.

Like the Gaels, lurking in second place behind Gonzaga and hoping for a late-season push that can dethrone the struggling-but-still formidable boys from Spokane. Before steaming into the McCarthey Athletic Center on Saturday, however, the Gaels must first deal with Portland. It will not be easy.

Just looking at the record book, the Portland game appears to be a gimmee. There is Portland’s lackluster overall record (11-16), and there is the Gaels’ 89-74 romp over them in Moraga on Jan. 23. But, appearances can be deceiving, and one can assume Gael coach Randy Bennett is prohibiting any lingering glimpses of the video or box score from that previous encounter.

First of all, it is doubtful the Gaels will replicate their 63% FG shooting from January, which included opening the game going 8-9 and starting the second half making their first 11 FGs. That was the game in which Dane Pineau made his first 10 shots and blew a chance at the Gaels’ all-time efficiency mark by flubbing a bunny in the game’s final minutes. It was a game in which Emmettt Naar top-scored with 20 points and dished out eight assists. It was a game, in other words, that represents a bygone time for the now-conflicted Gaels.

They have gone 3-2 since beating Portland and have failed to score at least 70 points in all five of those games. Naar has seemingly lost his once-stellar three-point shooting touch, and he and back court mate Joe Rahon seem strangely out of sync. Doubt lingers in their heads, and doubt is not something one wants to exhibit facing Portland.

Everybody in the pool

Reveno faced a depleted roster heading into 2015-16, especially on the front line where stalwarts  Thomas van de Mars, Riley Barker and Volodymyr Gerun all graduated, along with top scoring guard Kevin Bailey. He had previously brought in a promising seven-footer from Cologne, Germany, Phillipp Hartwich, and local talent Gabe Taylor. Hartwich, however, would fare poorly in a side-by-side comparison with a string bean, and Taylor, at 6-8, is a  bit undersized. To that duo he added a 6-10 bruiser from New Mexico JC, Ray Barreno, and headed into this season with a lot of question marks.

He has settled for an open-door policy built around returning guards Bryce Pressley and Alec Wintering — both excellent — and usually Taylor and Barreno on the front line. After that, however, it has been a seemingly different hot hand — or hands — in every game, as the Pilots search for the optimum combination. Gael fans got a look at two of Reveno’s Bench Bombers, D’Marques Tyson and Jazz Johnson, who chipped in 16 and 12 points, respectively, in the Moraga game.

To emphasize Reveno’s policy of Any Gun/ Any Night, another recent roster addition, JC transfer Jarrel Marshall, went for 25 points in the Pilots’ latest game, a 92-66 beat down at home by Gonzaga. What the Gaels know for sure is that Portland will hoist a lot of three-pointers and make enough of them to keep them near the top of the WCC with nearly 10 made threes per game. That approach brought them home wins over Pepperdine, 87-79, and over BYU, 84-81.

No surprises with the Zags

On the other hand, the Gaels know quite a bit about the Gonzaga juggernaut awaiting them on Saturday. To be sure, it is a somewhat depleted juggernaut compared to last year’s Elite Eight, 35-win competitor, but the Zags are still a handful. In contrast with the Gaels’ recent struggles, Gonzaga had won six games in a row, including four on the road, before running into SMU and its brilliant guard, Nic Moore, last Saturday in Dallas, TX. Moore led 16th-ranked SMU with 25 points and 11 assists in a 69-60 win that dropped the Zags to 20-6 for the season.

They are looking down at Saint Mary’s from atop the WCC standings, however, 12-2 compared with the Gaels’ 11-3. Both teams have four league contests to go before heading to the WCC Tournament the first week of March in Las Vegas, and both hope to enter the tourney with a full head of steam. For the first time in recent memory Gonzaga might actually have to win the tournament championship and its automatic NCAA bid to guarantee its 18th straight NCAA appearance.

Certain to be rooting for them are HBO executives, who will be crossing all their fingers and toes to ensure their documentary on the glories of Zagism that airs its first installment tonight retains its authenticity.

The Gaels have hopes of their own, and a win over Gonzaga in Spokane would not only mark the first time since Mickey McConnell led them to victory in 2011, but it would give them a series sweep following their dramatic 70-67 win in Moraga on Jan. 21. That game required a second-half comeback from a 15-point deficit, and the Gaels should not count on a second dose of magic if they falter early on Saturday night.

Gael fans got a good look at one of Portland’s three-point bombers, D’Marques Tyson, shown above, as he came off the bench to score 16 points, including 5-9 on three-pointers, in a Gael win over Portland earlier this year. Photo courtesy of the Portland University Athletic Department.

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