By Malika Andrews |
Brace yourselves. The regular season is coming. The Portland Pilots men’s basketball team wrapped up their preseason with a 65-60 win over Cal State Fullerton at the Moda Center on Saturday night.
Point guard Alec Wintering led Portland with 19 points and 6 rebounds, as the Pilots split their back-to-back games in the Far West Classic. CSU-Fullerton guard Khalil Ahmad led all scorers with 25 points.
With the win, Portland improves to 6-7 on the season and currently sits at fifth in the WCC rankings. If an unpredictable preseason for the traditional powerhouses is any indication, the WCC could be a wildcard conference this year.
Gonzaga remains the WCC favorite even though it stumbles into conference with a record of 8-3, including five-point losses to both No. 22 UCLA and No. 13 Arizona. After losing senior guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., and while redshirt freshman guard Josh Perkins works to find his niche, the Zags’ backcourt remains an unfinished product. Meanwhile, a back injury to center Przemek Karnowski leaves a 7’1” hole in their once powerful frontcourt.
Those questions leave the Bulldogs unranked for the first time in twelve weeks, but not all is lost. Kyle Wiltjer — an early favorite for WCC Player of the Year — and Domantas Sabonis — the son of former Portland Trail Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis — give the Zags an imposing pair of forwards. The Pilots will have their work cut out for them when they host the Zags on Feb. 11.
Joining Gonzaga with only three loses is BYU. The Cougars knocked Portland out of the WCC tournament in the second round last season and have one preseason game remaining against Harvard on Tuesday. Despite losing 2014 WCC Player of the Year, guard Tyler Haws, BYU has a strong frontcourt. Guard Kyle Collinsworth is coming off a career-high 25 points, including seven 3-pointers. They will be throwing their name in the hat for the WCC title.
No WCC team enters conference play with more positive momentum than St. Mary’s, who posted an 8-1 preseason record despite a host of new faces in its rotation. In fact, the only player returning that saw any significant minutes last season is sophomore guard Emmett Naar. The Gaels are coming off a 92-36 win over Southern Utah, the third-largest win margin in program history and the least points allowed by St. Mary’s since 1989. They will open up WCC play against San Francisco on Monday.
Two season-long problems resurfaced for Portland during its game against CSU-Fullerton: weak defense and an inability to score. Their saving grace has been getting to the free throw line. Despite shooting only 36 percent from the field, Portland made 18-26 free throws. The Pilots were also able to capitalize on the Titans’ 16 turnovers. Portland’s bench outscored the Titans’ reserves 18-1 on guard Jazz Johnson’s 8 points.
The Pilots open up regular season on Monday against Loyola Marymount University before hosting Pepperdine on Wednesday.
“We’ve got a short turnaround,” head coach Eric Reveno said. “But we’re looking forward to playing a couple of quality teams on our home court. The West Coast Conference is full of well-coached teams and we’re going to see two of them this week at the Chiles Center.”
Before the Pilots need to worry about the WCC favorites, they will have to face LMU. There’s no clear favorite in Monday’s opener. Portland and LMU (7-4) faced similarly challenging preseason schedules. Although the Lions posted a better overall preseason record at 7-4, they were just 2-4 away from home. Last season Portland split their matchups with LMU, winning at home and falling in Los Angeles. Despite their inconsistent preseason play, the Pilots should be able to win on Monday if both Wintering and Johnson can get hot and lead the way.
Malika Andrews is the sports editor for The Beacon. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @malika_andrews.