Basketball Preview: Pilots face off against Zags Thursday for the second time

By Kyle Garcia | January 23, 2018 3:24pm

Rashad Jackson drives past a Gonzaga defender.
by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

This Thursday, the Pilots will gear up to play one of their biggest games of the year, facing off against the perennial WCC champion Gonzaga Bulldogs for the second time this year.

The Pilots enter the game with a 8-13 record, having earned their first two wins in conference play this past week against San Diego and Loyola Marymount, while the Bulldogs enter Thursday’s game with a 17-4 record and only one loss in conference play to Saint Mary’s. The last time these two met, Gonzaga dominated the Pilots, besting the team in almost every statistical category. It was Gonzaga’s game the whole way through.

Now they prepare to face off for the last time this regular season. So how do the Pilots stack up against this Gonzaga team the second time around? Let’s take a look.

Last time was...well...meh

Saying the Pilots struggled against the Bulldogs would be an understatement. Gonzaga trampled Portland, routing them for a 103-57 victory in Spokane. They dominated in nearly every facet of the game, handling the Pilots from start to finish.

The Pilots finished the game shooting 30% from the field while Gonzaga lit up the scoreboard shooting 53% for the game. Gonzaga also had the edge in rebounding, points in the paint, three-point shooting and bench points. The only time Portland led all game was early on when redshirt sophomore Josh McSwiggan hit a three to give the Pilots a 4-3 lead. That lead did not last long.

Portland was thoroughly outplayed last time. Gonzaga seemingly had the advantage in every single way, and the Pilots are going to have to make some serious adjustments if they stand a chance to make this game competitive.

The Bulldogs

Gonzaga has a lot of things working for them going into the game on Thursday.

First off, they have one of the best dynamic duos in the conference with Josh Perkins and John Williams. These two are the stars for the Bulldogs this year, and last time they didn’t even have to play much in order to beat the Pilots. On top of that, the Pilots have to worry about Rui Hachimura, who put up an impressive 20 points and seven rebounds against Portland last time and continues to stay on a variety of draft boards. Gonzaga can go deep into its bench if needed, and did so against the Pilots, playing all 12 active players.

They’re significantly better than the Pilots in almost every statistical category and so far this season, they have rolled past the majority of the conference. The only misstep came against the pre-season WCC favorites, the Saint Mary’s Gaels. The Bulldogs are beating their conference opponents this year by an average of 24.9 points per game.

The Zags have dominated WCC opponents all season long, and Portland was no exception. As of right now, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to expect anything different in this matchup. For Gonzaga to come out of Portland with a victory, all it has to do is just play its game. The Bulldogs dominated the Pilots last time, and that was with their best players barely having to play. If they just continue to play their game, there’s no reason they shouldn’t come out on top against the Pilots.

What Portland has going for them

When comparing the two teams, Gonzaga is hands down the superior team, and the last game between these two teams only affirmed that idea. That being said, there are some things that the Pilots do have going for them going into this game.

For starters, Portland’s three-point shooting has been hot all season long. The team is torching opponents from the outside, shooting 38.1% from beyond the arc. Its ability to drain those threes is the thing that has helped keep it in games for the majority of the season, and if Gonzaga struggles to adequately defend the perimeter, then the Pilots can put up points in a hurry and make this game a little more interesting.

On top of that, Portland has some momentum going into the game on Thursday. The Pilots are coming off a road trip to Southern California where they nabbed two victories, taking down University of San Diego 55-49 in a tough defensive battle and beating Loyola Marymount 72-65. It’s the first time the Pilots have had a WCC road sweep in two years. They finally won within their conference, which should give them a little more confidence going into Thursday.

If the Pilots hope to be competitive with the Bulldogs, there are some things that have to go their way. If the three-point shot starts falling for them, then that makes them significantly harder to guard, especially since the Pilots don’t have a great inside scoring presence. If they can get lucky and get that shot to fall, they can stay within reach. They also have the home court advantage this time around, a significantly friendlier environment to play in than the Martin Center in Spokane. If the Pilots can take advantage of these things, then there’s a chance they could make this game a more exciting one than last time around.

So who’s going to win?

It’s hard to see a scenario where Gonzaga doesn’t come out on top. Portland struggled mightily against them last time, with Gonzaga in the driver’s seat the whole way through. Gonzaga is an extremely well-coached team that can get quality minutes from a variety of players. Rui Hachimura is a solid draft prospect who can come off the bench and hurt Portland in the post. Add that to the fact that Gonzaga dominated Portland in the paint and on the boards, Portland is going to have to make some major adjustments if it wants to stand a chance. 

This young Portland team may be starting to figure some things out, as evidenced by their pair of road wins last week, but they still have a long way to go before it can compete with the likes of Gonzaga. What the Pilots should look for in this one is improvement. Winning for them isn’t likely, but if they can improve on their performance from last time, then that would be a win in and of itself. This team is young and still has a ways to go, but if it can stay competitive with arguably the best team in the conference, that’s a victory with or without a winning scoreboard.