The Vandals take on one of their toughest foes yet, the Portland Pilots, in Memorial Gym at 5 o’clock this evening. The Pilots are nationally ranked #25 in the AP Poll, which makes them the first ranked non-conference team to visit Moscow since 1963. (Thanks to SID extraordinaire Spencer Farrin for tracking that stat down.) It’s a big game for both teams, which are each coming off their second loss of the season. For the Vandals, knocking off a top-25 team could be a big boost to the seed-line come tournament time, and it would certainly be a nice feather in the cap regardless. As we’ll mention, it’s also a matchup of two of the best offensive teams in the NCAA.
We’ll have all the action on Vandal Nation Live, starting with pregame at 4:30 p.m., tip-off at 5.
Let’s take a look at this year’s Portland squad. Click here for Idaho coach Don Verlin’s thoughts on the game.
Portland Pilots (5-2)
West Coast Conference — 2009 record: 19-13 (lost to Pacific in CollegeInsider.com First Round)
Backed by a high-powered and efficient offense, the Portland Pilots have busted out of the gate as one of the hottest mid-major squads in college hoops. They upset Oregon, UCLA and #22 Minnesota en route to a runner-up finish in the 76 Classic preseason tournament, losing in the title game to a red-hot West Virginia squad. Those stellar performances, all on national TV, earned Portland its first national Top 25 ranking in 50 years. But ever since then, it’s been downhill. The Pilots dropped their last game at home to cross-city rival Portland State, and desperately need a victory to keep their two-game slide from getting steeper.
Few teams in the NCAA are as efficient as the Pilots, and that’s what’s powered them to the upsets. They rank 24th in the nation in points per possession, collect an unreal 1.2 points per weighted shot (12th in the nation) and have Division I’s 10th-best True Shooting percentage. They aren’t great with ball-handling, turning it over about 15 times per game, but those shooting percentages make up for it. In raw numbers, Portland hits from the floor at a .491 clip and .417 from downtown.
The Pilots are also extremely diverse — in seven games, four different players have stepped up as the leading scorer. This is not a uni-dimensional squad and it won’t be easy for the Vandals’ defense to shut down. There’s not much depth, though — only seven players have been making significant contributions to the offense, and six average at least 25 minutes. Past the two bench stalwarts, fourth-year coach Eric Reveno is taking big chances.
The good news, if there is any: Portland’s inside presence can be exploited, because that’s where the Pilots have been giving up big points. They’re holding opponents to just 32 percent shooting from beyond the arc, but allowing 48 percent inside. Even more heartening: they can be even worse. In the loss to Portland State, the Pilots gave up 53 percent shooting, including a lights-out 60 percent performance from downtown. But still, the Vikings never led until the final minutes, as Portland’s powerhouse offense was able to keep a step ahead despite shoddy defense.
To get the win, the Vandals are going to have to shoot the lights out in their own gym, earning easy layups and bullet treys off wide-open transition looks. Idaho’s not built for grinding it out, and neither are the Pilots. Whoever has possession last (and whoever gets hot near the end) may well come out on top. But with more depth on the bench, Idaho coach Don Verlin may have his ace in the hole. Forcing Portland into foul trouble could pay big dividends, as their finely-honed short-bench rotation doesn’t tolerate interruptions. The other thing they must do: come through in the clutch. Idaho’s defense couldn’t get any stops down the stretch in Northridge and that was the difference between winning and losing. So may it be tonight.
Key statistic: True Shooting Percentage
- Idaho: 60.3% (16th) — Portland: 61.0% (10th)
If you like offense, you’re going to love tonight’s matchup, and the scoreboards in venerable Memorial Gym may just blow a fuse. This is a matchup of two of the hottest-shooting teams in NCAA basketball. True Shooting Percentage is a weighted percentage that factors in a team’s performance from beyond the arc and the free-throw line. The Vandals clock in at 60.3 percent, good for 16th in the nation. The Pilots are even better at 61.0 percent. Could both teams break the century barrier? Not out of the question at all.
- G #15 Nik Ravio, Sr. — 15.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.4 apg
Ravio began the season as one of the Pilots’ most potent weapons, and he’s still a high-scoring backcourt threat and glass-cleaner. But his shooting efficiency has taken a nosedive in the last three games — not coincidentally, three of the toughest opponents the Pilots have faced this season. He’s just 14-of-42 after opening the year 36-of-52. Nor is he great at the charity stripe. So it would seem the Vandals could find a defensive opening against him. But there lies danger, too — you never know when a streaky shooter like Ravio will get hot again.
- G #44 T.J. Campbell, Sr. — 16.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 5.3 apg
A 5-9 sparkplug, Campbell was the WCC’s Newcomer of the Year last season, and why not. The kid shoots 55 percent from the floor — 2-point and 3-point — and boasts a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio. After his breakout 2008-09 campaign, Reveno said “We maybe need to get him some more shots.” They have — he’s the team’s leading scorer despite his diminutive size. Campbell is also a nearly-automatic free-throw shooter, so the Vandals can’t just hack away. If Idaho lets him run loose in Memorial Gym, it’ll be a long night for the home team.
- C #12 Robin Smeulders, Sr. — 13.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.0 apg
The Pilots’ big man with soft hands, Smeulders will be a handful for the Vandals’ post defenders to deal with. Not only can he score in bunches, but he simply does not give up the basketball, averaging just 1 turnover per game this year. That’s unusual for a paint power like Smeulders, and it’s one reason he’s so effective at scoring the basketball. Not only that, but you don’t want to foul him either. He doesn’t turn it over, he shoots 64 percent and he hits free throws? Yeah, good luck guarding that. Jefferson, Barone and Co. have their work cut out for them tonight.
- F #45 Kramer Knutson, Jr. — 5.1 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 0.6 apg
You knew Portland couldn’t have five starting studs, and here’s where the Pilots could get take advantage of. Knutson is not a great starting power forward, because he just doesn’t pull down the boards like he should. Oh, he can shoot it — 63 percent from the field — but he’s averaging a turnover every 10 minutes and he has nearly as many fouls (14) as rebounds (16) on the season. It’s clear Reveno doesn’t have much confidence in him — for a starter, Knutson sees very little playing time, just 16 minutes per game.
- F #3 Ethan Niedermeyer, Sr. — 6.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.0 apg
Another weak spot for the Pilots, Niedermeyer is the worst shooter on the team by a country mile — and he doesn’t even have the excuse of being a guard. He’s just 18-of-46 from the field (.333 from downtown) and is either on his game or way, way off. Nothing in between, he might be the streakiest shooter in the West Coast Conference. Not only that, he’s a turnover machine, too — he’s coughed it up 16 times in just seven games, with 9 of those coming in the last three contests. His saving grace, might be his rebounding, where he puts up solid numbers for a wing.
- G #20 Jared Stohl, Jr. — 8.9 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 1.3 apg
The backcourt spark waiting on the bench, Stohl is a decent enough shooting guard hampered, in what seems to be a recurring theme for the Pilots, by extreme streakiness. Against UCLA, he was unstoppable, burying 5-of-5 from beyond the arc, but the next night against Minnesota he took 10 shots and hit just 2 of them. He’s a combined 6-for-24 in the Pilots’ last three games, where the defensive challenge has stiffened. If the Pilots want to make a real run in the WCC and continue their statement season, Stohl has to get more consistent, if perhaps less spectacular.
- F #21 Luke Sikma, Jr. — 6.3 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.3 apg
A versatile front-courter off the bench, Sikma is a huge force off the glass, a solid ball-handler and a 58-percent shooter from the floor. His defensive skills are somewhat suspect (with two foul-outs on the season, it seems he has to hack to get a stop) and he’s a relatively poor free-throw shooter, but those are small quibbles. On a team with a fairly thin bench, Sikma has played a huge role in the Pilots’ success this season, and his minutes are going to be big ones against an Idaho team that runs the floor and leaves opponents gasping in its wake.