Expectations high for men’s basketball in third year of Porter era

By Kyle Garcia | November 6, 2018 1:56pm
Tahirou Diabate and Jacob Tryon talk during practice. Both big men will play a pivotal role for the Pilots this season.
Media Credit: Annika Gordon / The Beacon

It’s been a tough first couple years for the Portland Pilots under the Porter era. They’ve gone a combined 21-44 in that span and have finished in the ninth in 10th respectively in the West Coast Conference. It’s been a tough rebuilding era for Portland, and the young team that had only two seniors on the roster last season struggled.

“We knew there would be some growing pains,” assistant coach Ben Johnson said about the team’s season last year. “Some of that was to be expected. For the most part anytime that happens, it really tests your character.”

Most major media outlets are predicting more of the same this year, with the majority of preseason polls saying they finish in one of the bottom two spots in the conference. However, Portland has placed much higher expectations on themselves.

“Honestly, I feel like we’re at least top five in the conference,” sophomore guard Marcus Shaver Jr. said. “I feel like the whole WCC is just sleeping on us right now cause of what we did last year, but I really have faith in my team this year.

“This year we’re going to prove everyone wrong,” Shaver Jr. continued. “We don’t like that they ranked us last preseason.”

That’s lofty expectations for a team that’s struggled the past couple seasons. A lot of the team’s success depends on how much the returning players have improved their game this offseason and how the newcomers have integrated into the system. So far, the team has been impressed with the progress they’ve made.

Assistant coach Ben Johnson said that redshirt junior Josh McSwiggan, the second leading scorer on the team last year and one of the best three point shooters in the conference shooting 43.5 percent last season, has improved his game this offseason. Johnson expects people to be surprised by just how much better McSwiggan has gotten.

“I think he’s really gone to work,” Johnson said. “I think he’s finally gotten the rust off his game after a full year of JUCO and then a year here and then understanding the system better. I’m looking for big things from Josh this upcoming season.”

Redshirt junior Josh McSwiggan was a key member of the Pilots last year and looks to expand his role this season.
by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

Three point shooting is going to be a big part of the offense this year. The Pilots shot 665 threes last year compared to the 573 the year before, and they made them at a solid rate of around 38 percent last season. This year, the Pilots want to push those numbers even more, trying to evolve with the modern offenses basketball teams are looking for nowadays by pushing it upcourt early and often.

“I think we’re going to push the ball more this year,” McSwiggan said. “We’re going to try and push the ball more and get out in transition because the best offense is an early offense...the game of basketball is changing throughout all different leagues...everyone’s pushing the ball and getting a lot of threes.”

Marcus Shaver Jr. is going to be key in getting those numbers up. Despite being Portland’s leading scorer at 12.3 points per game, he struggled from outside, shooting a rough 26.6 percent. This year he’s looking to get those way up, and has spent a lot of time in the gym practicing his shot.

“Just reps everyday,” Shaver Jr. said. “I was in a shooting slump last year, didn’t shoot too well from three, but that’s really going to improve this year.”

Marcus Shaver Jr. launches a three in a exhibition game against Westmont. Portland's leading scorer last year, he looks to improve his shooting after a slump last season.
by Jeff Braccia / The Beacon

Another player who’s expected to have a big year for the Pilots is sophomore Tahirou Diabate. Last year, Diabate showed flashes of how good he can be, and he’s put in work to make those moments last throughout the year. He’s worked mostly on getting stronger so he can play inside the paint better.

“Something I did to help me was gain muscle,” Diabate said. “I’ve put on about 15 pounds since last season.”

With frontcourt stallworth Phillip Hartwitch gone this year, the Pilots will hope Diabate can help replace the all time shot blocking leader for Portland. Diabate won’t be alone though, with some newcomers looking to play significant minutes in the frontcourt.

Sophomore transfer Jacob Tryon is a 7-footer who can stretch the floor with his shooting ability. A shooting big is a luxury the Pilots have lacked in the past, and his skill set fits well with what the Pilots want to do offensively. Redshirt freshman Hugh Hogland also should see playing time this year. The 6’10” big man has also put on some muscle over the offseason and has impressed teammates and coaches with his progress.

Sophomore Tahirou Diabate is a player poised for a potential breakout year.
by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

Another big that has really impressed both coaches and players this fall is freshman Theo Akwuba. The 6’10” frosh from Montgomery, Alabama has really caught the eye of both coaches and players for his stellar play. His ability to play inside has stood out, especially on defense. He averaged a triple double in his senior year of high school, including an astounding 10.4 blocks a game.

“I really like the addition of young Theo,” Johnson said. “We really like what he’s done in the fall workouts and he even started our first exhibition game for us...he’s one of the few guys that could’ve gone to some high major programs right out of high school.”

“Somebody that stood out to me in the first game was Theo,” Shaver Jr. said. “He really reminded me of Phil (Hartwitch) the way he uses his length to block shots, his ability to alter shots on defense, he gets boards, he’s really smart with kicking the ball out when he doesn’t have a shot.”

It won’t just be the frontcourt that plays a big role when the season starts. Redshirt sophomore Taki Fahrensohn should provide more of the three point shooting that they’re looking for. Him along with sophomore Jojo Walker, who played an important role in the backcourt last year, should help the team a lot.

One newcomer they’ll miss for a significant amount of time is redshirt junior Crisshawn Clark. Clark dislocated his ankle earlier this fall and will be out for about six to eight weeks, according to Johnson. The transfer from Pitt is expected to be a big part of the backcourt once he gets back.

“That’s certainly a significant loss to our program,” Johnson said. “He has a certain level of confidence and a swagger about him that was good, good for your team, good for your program.”

Freshman Theo Akwuba has impressed coaches and teammates so far this fall.
by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

Overall the Pilots have high expectations for themselves. They’ve aimed to improve significantly over the offseason and believe that those improvements can lead to them surprising a lot of people.

So far in their exhibition games they’ve performed well. They’ve beaten the teams they’ve played this year by a considerable amount, beating Antelope Valley 94-64 and Westmont 94-80. 

Those wins are impressive but a little misleading. Both of those teams are not as strong than any team they’ll play in the WCC and beating them doesn’t give much insight into how they’ll actually do. Still, they look like they’ve made some improvements over the offseason.

Whether or not those improvements lead to more wins on their record remains to be seen.

Kyle Garcia is the sports editor for The Beacon. He can be reached at garciaky20@up.edu.