The Terry Porter hire last spring was arguably the biggest move in the history of the University of Portland men’s basketball program.
This is how it played out: A culmination of many years of mediocrity— capped off with a disappointing 12-20 campaign last season— led to head coach Eric Reveno being fired after a decade on the sidelines, thus igniting the frantic search for a new head coach. And in three weeks time, days of rumor and speculation were confirmed: Porter would be the next coach of the Pilots.
The Portland Trail Blazer legend was greeted with an energy and spirit unknown to Pilot home games. A long row of local news media sat front-and-center at the introductory presser at the Chiles Center. Close to 1,000 Pilot fans, donning purple Porter shirts, rose to their feet in a standing ovation as their new coach graced the podium. It was a different kind of energy; a breath of fresh air. The kind that could bring life into Portland’s struggling men’s basketball program— which only has two NCAA tournament berths to its name.
“We know Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, and BYU have established their programs at a very high level and we want Portland to be in that conversation,” Porter told the crowd.
But by the end of season number one on the Bluff for Porter, a quarterfinals exit in the West Coast Conference tournament, all the hoopla had turned into the same-old script for the Pilots: A below .500 record at 11-22 overall, not enough scoring options on the floor, not enough talent to compete with the upper-echelon of the WCC.
It hurts because it wasn’t suppose to shape out this way in the beginning.
Things were looking up for the team. Alec Wintering and Jazz Johnson emerged as one of the nation’s top-scoring backcourts, despite both being undersized. A mid-December win over Oregon State marked their first victory over a Pac-12 opponent in seven seasons. Heading into 2017, with a 9-5 record and two straight wins to start conference play, the Pilots were on pace for their first winning season since 2011-12.
Then bad fortune struck and the season spun out of control.
It started on Jan. 12 against Saint Mary’s. The Gaels blew out the Pilots by 41 points at Chiles, holding them to 33 points (nine points by the half), the second lowest scoring total in men’s Division I basketball up to that point in the season. Then Wintering, Portland’s heart and soul, tore his ACL — which ended his career, five assists short of the school record to boot. And with the blink of an eye, what was a three-game skid before Wintering went down ballooned into 14, tying the program’s longest losing streak in 28 years. The Pilots finished the regular season losers of 16 straight conference games.
“You take away 18, 20 points (in Wintering) and then you’re not able to come with a collective effort of someone picking up those points, it becomes difficult at stretches and at times of games,” Porter said after the senior night loss to BYU on Feb. 23.
Porter deserves a pass in season one. How much can you really expect from a new coach who inherits an average team— with only one recruit that he can call his own— that loses its conference player of the year candidate mid-season? It’s hard to write a more unlucky narrative.
So by the end of January, we found ourselves already looking ahead to next season. The Pilots’ 17th-ranked recruiting class— According to the recruiting site Hoop Scoop; Doesn’t hold the same weight as ESPN— is coming to the rescue, we say. The Porter brothers, too, Malcolm and Franklin, will finally suit up for dad.
But as we look back on the year that was 2016-17, we’re exactly where we were last spring: At the end of a disappointing season with high hopes for what is to come.
What can we expect from Porter’s team in his second year on the Bluff? It could be the start of that foundation he talked about establishing last April, in front of all those fans wearing purple shirts with his name, about making those steps forward to bring Portland basketball to prominence.
Like most Pilot fans, I want it to be that desperately.
But it could also be another year of the same-old script; that same storyline of mediocrity that has plagued Pilot basketball for far too long.