PK80 Recap: Pilots come out of tournament winless, but not hopeless

By Kyle Garcia | December 1, 2017 12:13am

Terry Porter talks to his team during a timeout

This past weekend, the Portland Pilots participated in the prestigious PK80 Phil Knight Invitational, a tournament held to celebrate Phil Knight’s contribution to collegiate basketball as well as celebrate his 80th birthday.

The tournament featured some of the best teams in the country, including the no. 9-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels, the no. 1-ranked Duke Blue Devils, and 14 other elite college basketball teams, including the Pilots.

So how did the Pilots fair in the tourney? And what does it mean about the rest of the year? Here’s a breakdown of what happened over Thanksgiving weekend. 

Playing the champs

In a tough opening matchup, the Pilots had to face the Tar Heels, the reigning national champions. It went as expected, with the Pilots losing the game 102-78.

They kept pace with them in the first half, but UNC’s size was just too much for the Pilots to handle. UNC put up 24 points in the paint in the first half, and would finish the game outscoring the Pilots in the paint 52-26. A 14-0 run from the Tar Heels to start the second half also hurt the Pilots, making the deficit that much harder to overcome and a UNC win inevitable.

The final score doesn’t tell the whole story though, and there really were some positives to take away from the game. The Pilots stayed competitive (at least in the first half) with a team that is consistently one of the best teams in college basketball and that is coming off winning a national title (its sixth one). UNC has two legitimate player of the year candidates in Luke Maye, who put up 20 points and 10 rebounds against the Pilots, and Joel Berry II, who put up 19 against Portland. Last year’s team would not have been able to even stay competitive with a team of that caliber.

The reality is that the Pilots are a young team that hasn’t played together for a very long time. The majority of the team is made up of either freshmen, transfers or players who redshirted last year. The expectation never was that they would win the game; all anyone could hope for was that the Pilots wouldn’t get dumped on by one of the best teams in the country, and for the most part, the team did just that. 

Tahirou Diabate takes player of the year candidate Luke Maye to the hole.

The Pilots shot well from outside, hitting 13 of their 28 three-pointers in the game. Legendary North Carolina coach Roy Williams acknowledged how well they shot, and said that the Pilots “really hurt us with their three-point shot, because we did a poor job guarding their dribble penetration.”

The fact that young guys like Malcolm Porter, Jojo Walker and Marcus Shaver Jr. played well (Porter and Shaver put in 13 and 17 respectively off the bench while Walker had nine points along with two steals) is a good sign for the Pilots. It’s a step up from last year’s team and a step in the right direction for the future.

While it’s never good to lose, there are significantly worse ways to lose and a lot worse teams to lose to. The Pilots are not going to play anyone nearly as good as UNC for the rest of the year, so the fact that they didn’t get completely blown out of the water is actually fairly impressive. The Pilots are looking at the long term, and the long term is a lot better now than it was a year ago at this time.

What about the other games?

The Pilots couldn’t come up with a victory against the Oklahoma Sooners, dropping that game 93-71 despite a late rally from Portland, and dropped their game against the Depaul Blue Demons 82-69.

The Sooners are coming off a rough year, going 11-20 and finishing ninth in the Big 12 conference. This year they look vastly better, starting the season off 4-1. Trae Young led the way for the Sooners with 33 points, five rebounds and eight assist. Khadeem Lattin also finished with 19 points and 16 rebounds.

They also took advantage of the lack of size for the Pilots, grabbing 40 rebounds to Portland’s 29. Oklahoma also beat the Pilots in points in the paint 42-22. They also shot 52% from the field and went 15-17 from the foul line.

The Pilots continued their trend of hot three-point shooting, hitting 12-27 from deep. However, they only shot 40 percent overall from the field. Jojo Walker played well for the Pilots, putting in 15 points and grabbing six boards. Franklin Porter and Josh McSwiggan also put in 13 points for the Pilots.

Jojo Walker goes up for the lay-up

The DePaul Blue Demons are in a similar spot as the Pilots are. After many years of losing basketball, their team has been re-energized with the construction of a new arena  in Chicago and a very talented team. They are looking to change the losing culture of their basketball program similar to UP.

The Pilots got off to a bad start against the Blue Demons, and were unable to take care of the ball. They found themselves down 36-17 halfway through the first half, making it an uphill battle from start to finish. They were able to cut the deficit down to 49-33 at the half, and behind a barrage of three-pointers were able to cut the Blue Demons lead down to 64-57. But after giving up a 10-0 run, the Pilots were unable to complete comeback and would eventually lose.

Franklin Porter, McSwiggan and Shaver Jr. once again led the way in scoring for the Pilots. Porter tallied 16 points while Shaver Jr. and McSwiggan had 15 and 14 each. Hartwich also chipped in seven points as well as 12 rebounds.

They shot very well from outside, hitting over 50% of their threes for the game at 14-27. But once again the Pilots found themselves outrebounded 41-29 as well as turning the ball over a lot with 14 giveaways. 

What this means for the Pilots going forward

The PK80 highlighted what the Pilots excel at and where they struggle. They are hitting threes at an exceptional rate, averaging 46.1% from deep and 11.7 makes a game. In the PK80 alone they shot 39-82, almost 48% from three, a ludicrously good percentage for any basketball team. Players like McSwiggan and Walker are exceptional from the outside, and when guys like the Porter brothers and Shaver Jr. dribble into the lane, it forces defenders to collapse on them, opening up shots on the outside. They are a constant threat from the outside, and are more than capable of putting together runs because of their exceptional marksmanship.

Also, it’s a positive sign that all of the young players are consistently contributing in a big way. Jojo Walker has been solid starting at point guard, facilitating the game while also being a reliable option from deep. Marcus Shaver Jr. has been a sparkplug off the bench, providing much needed scoring off the bench. Tahirous Diabate has moments where he thrives, and while it hasn’t translated into great stats yet, he is still a freshman and possesses good size and length. Once he figures out his role on the court, he will be able to translate his potential into production.

Wally the Pilot proudly carries the UP flag

While they look solid as a team offensively, they still have some work to do defensively. Phillip Hartwich is their bright spot, averaging 3.2 blocks per game, but besides Hartwich, the Pilots struggled. They are giving up 78 ppg, and gave up 102 points to UNC and 93 points to Oklahoma. While those are two very talented teams, the Pilots need to improve if they want to sustain any type of success.

They also struggled to take care of the ball in the PK80. They generally shared the ball well, and currently are averaging 16.3 assists per game. However, they’re also turning the ball over at an almost equally high rate. They turn the ball over at a rate of 13 turnovers per game. Their turnover margin sits at -0.7 and their assist/turnover ratio at 1.3. It’s hard to win games when you turn the ball over at such a high rate, and that’s something they’ll need to smooth out if they want to be successful when conference play comes around.

Their youth is something that works both for them and against them. They’re a young team that is learning to play together and should be together for the next few years. They’ve already shown that they are a talented bunch, which is evident in their production on the court. But they are still young, and a lot of the things that they struggle with mentioned above are things that happen to young teams. A lot of these players are adjusting to the college game, and while they seem to be adjusting at a fairly fast rate, they still have some growing pains to go through before they are going to be truly competitive.

Playing in PK80 was good experience for the Pilots. They were thrown into the deep end, played some very elite teams that they don’t usually play, and performed admirably. The team is young, and they need reps together, and playing against some of the best teams in the nation was the reps they needed. It was a good way to expose them to some high-quality teams and prepare them for when conference play starts.