Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
This is hardly a game that anyone would have had circled on their calendars, but its definitely gained intrigue as Portland has continues to win. At the halfway point of the West Coast conference season #77 Portland (15-7, 6-1) is hosting a game that could put them in a tie for the conference lead when #24 Gonzaga (16-4, 7-0) comes to town.
Considering Portland was picked 6th in the preseason WCC poll, it’s definitely a major surprise to see it right in the thick of the conference battle. The Pilots dropped some ugly non conference games, including at home to Eastern Washington and at Northern Colorado, but do have a quality win over Washington that opened their season. Portland lost its opening WCC game to Gonzaga by 13, but has put together a 6-game win streak since then, though it did benefit from hosting most of the tougher games in the first half of its schedule. Gonzaga had a disastrous run at the end of December, losing four out of five, including to Portland St. and Utah, but outside of that stretch, has looked very good, including a couple of wins over Tennessee and a fairly easy sweep through the conference schedule.
Gonzaga has one of the best offenses in the country, mostly due to their excellent ball control. The Bulldogs turn the ball over on just 17% of trips down the floor, one of the nation’s best rates. Gonzaga has had an effective, balanced attack, making a good percentage of shots both inside and outside. It doesn’t get to the line much, and isn’t great on the offensive glass, but makes enough shots that these failings don’t really hurt. Portland has struggled defensively, and looks like it will be in a lot of trouble in this one. The Pilots force turnovers and defend the glass, but commit a lot of fouls, and allow opponents to shoot fairly high percentage. The one bright spot is that they held Gonzaga to a fairly low percentage in their first game, though that was still an easy Gonzaga win.
Portland has only a single offensive strength, the three point shot; that said, it’s a good one to have, especially when you shoot over 40% from behind the arc, like the Pilots do. Portland don’t take a huge number of threes, but take enough that they can get a lot of quick points from outside. They shoot decently from inside as well, but are just average in the other offensive areas. On the defensive side, Gonzaga also has one major strength that can cover for the others, its interior defense. The Bulldogs allow just 38.5% of shots from two, the best percentage in the nation. They don’t foul a lot, and are good perimeter defenders, but are surprisingly weak on the glass, given their interior strength. Overall, Gonzaga has accrued a very impressive defensive record, but there is a point for concern: both of Gonzaga’s big upset losses came to opponents that shot and made a lot of threes in Portland St. and Utah, and Portland are well equipped to do the same thing.
Gonzaga depends on a rotation of six players, but doesn’t have much depth beyond that. Jeremy Pargo is the point guard, and while his three-point shooting has not been good, he’s been an effective distributor this season, leading the WCC in assists and putting up a 2.0 A/TO ratio. Matt Bouldin is the Bulldogs’ most effective shooter, over 40% from three and pretty solid inside as well. Sophomore Steven Gray is the third starting guard, he’s been a good inside shooter and has a committed just 17 turnovers on the season. The frontcourt leader is senior Josh Heytvelt, the team’s top scorer, and a good rebounder with a nice long-distance touch for a 6-11 guy. Austin Daye may be the best player in the frontcourt, the team leader in rebounds and one of the conferences’ best shot-blockers. Daye takes more shots than anyone else on the team, but makes a nice percentage of them, and has seen his numbers make a turn for the better in recent weeks. Micah Downs is 6-8, but you wouldn’t know it from his shot selection, he’s the team’s most prevalent three point shooter, and a pretty good one as well. Beyond these six guys, Demetri Goodson is a freshman guard who can chip in 10-20 effective minutes, while 7-5 Will Foster can give the team a different defensive look, especially defensively, when inserted.
A very familiar name to WCC fans, and college basketball fans in general, leads the Pilots, in junior guard Nik Raivio. Raivio takes a huge proportion of the teams’ shots, and does fairly well with them, making just enough to justify the volume. He doesn’t get a lot of assists, but commits relatively few turnovers, given the size of his offensive role, and is a surprisingly good defensive rebounder, despite being just 6-4. Fellow junior guard T.J. Campbell picks up 5 assists a game alongside Raivio, but is a good shooter himself, hitting well over 50% of his three-point attempts. He needs to get to the free throw line more though, he’s gone more than 115 minutes without an attempt from the stripe. The Pilots start three men in the frontcourt, including 6-10 German Robin Smeulders, who gets good averages in scoring and rebounding, but isn’t very efficient. Junior Ethan Niedermeyer also starts, but doesn’t play a lot of minutes; he’s an adequate shooter, and quite good from long-distance, but struggles with turnovers. 6-9 Kramer Knutson is the fifth starter, he makes 60% of his shots, but doesn’t do much on the glass. Two players have important roles for the Pilots off the bench, forward Luke Sikma and guard Jared Stohl. Stohl is a three-point specialist, taking more than 80% of his attempts from behind the arc, and hitting over 45% of them. Sikma is an important frontcourt player for Portland, making more than 50% of his shots while being one of the conferences’ best rebounders. These 7 guys make up Portland’s core, though 6-10 Jason Hannibal can provide some size, and 2007 All-WCC freshman Taishi Ito can help out in the backcourt.
The analysis to this one seems fairly simple, as Gonzaga should simply have the Pilots outgunned in all areas of the game. Portland St. showed, however, that when a team can make three-pointers against the Bulldogs, it can pull off the upset. If Gonzaga’s offense has a sluggish night, it’ll have to be careful to avoid an embarrassing defeat.
Winner: Gonzaga Margin: 10+
-- Evan Dorey's rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple: all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.