With the leaves changing on the trees and fall in full swing, the University of Portland men’s basketball team is nearing the tip-off of another season. As the team prepares with daily practices, the players have the goal of taking steps forward this season.
As head coach Terry Porter enters his fourth season at the helm for the Pilots, he will also be looking to change the status quo of the previous three seasons. Portland finished last season with an overall record of 7-25, losing their final 18 games of the season. The Pilots failed to win a conference game in 2018, bringing their record to 6-46 in conference play under coach Porter.
Because of these results last season, Portland was picked to finish last in the WCC preseason coaches poll. However, as the new season rapidly approaches, the Pilots acknowledge the past but don’t dwell on it.
“Nobody wants to be at the bottom,” junior guard JoJo Walker said. “It’s a motivation for us to work harder every day and to prove them wrong.”
A new year brings an opportunity to improve. Improvement will be focused around the newcomers to the program. Portland graduated four players last season. A big blow to the team from those four players is forward Josh McSwiggan. McSwiggan started 25 games for the Pilots last year, averaging 9.2 points a game and shooting 32% from three-point range.
But the Pilots’ biggest loss from last season came in the form of guard Marcus Shaver Jr., who transferred to Boise State University following last season. Shaver lead the team in scoring with an average of 14.8 points per game. Shaver was also the team leader in steals, three-point field goal percentage, free throw total and percentage made.
Replacing Shaver will be the toughest task for Portland. This role will fall on one newcomer, freshman guard Chase Adams, as well as Walker, a returning junior .
Walker was a force for Portland last season and served as the number two scoring option behind Shaver. Averaging 11.5 points while starting 31 of 32 games for Portland last season, Walker will have to take on an even larger role this season.
Adams, a Chicago native, will be expected to take on a large role as well. After his time at Orr High School, Adams spent a year playing for Link Year Prep, a post-graduate college prep program in Branson, Missouri. The five-foot-seven-inch guard averaged 16 points, 7.3 assists and 2.8 steals a game for Link. Though Portland may need to lean a bit on the freshman, he does not feel the pressure.
“I have been playing basketball for a long time,” Adams said. “It's the same thing — just putting the ball in the basket. My role on the team is to be the best team player I can be.”
Adams is one of many new faces in the Pilot locker room this season.
Portland also added two graduate transfers to the roster this season. Of the two, Isaiah White will be looking to make the most immediate impact. White graduated from the University of Maine last year and was a pivotal part of the basketball team. As the second-leading scorer for Maine in 2018, White averaged 13.5 points per game while also leading the team in three-pointers made (54) and steals (43). With White on the team, he can help cause problems for opponents on the wing, fitting in nicely to Portland’s long-range shooting attack.
Having two graduate transfers will also help the Pilots with intangibles. Seasoned players who have been in the NCAA for years bring a more mature sense of guidance and leadership to the program. Although over the last three seasons Portland has played with a mostly younger team, the core of the team this season will be older players.
“The youth is turning, you’ve seen the wins, you’ve seen the losses,” assistant coach Chris Buchanan said. “Long story short, being older helps.”
Portland’s biggest question will come in the post. Finding who is going to play the center position will be pivotal to this guard-heavy team. Junior forward Thahirou Diabate will look to slot himself into the four position after starting 17 games for Portland last season while grabbing just over 100 rebounds in the season, averaging about 3.2 a game. With the graduation of both McSwiggan and Franklin Porter, the starting forward position is Diabate’s to lose.
There are a couple Pilots looking to secure the starting center job. Sophomore Theo Akwuba seems to be the front runner for the position after starting 26 games for Portland last season. However, Akwuba, despite recording a team-leading 46 blocks over the course of last season, only put up 3.4 points in 17 minutes per game.
The other options the Pilots could plug in immediately are redshirt sophomore Hugh Hogland or junior Jacob Tryon. Both Hogland and Tryon found themselves in the starting lineup a few times last season, but neither made a splash offensively.
Hogland averaged 4.5 points in 15.4 minutes per game while Tryon averaged 5.2 points in 18 minutes a game. Tryon dealt with injuries last season, limiting him to only 21 games. If any of the bigs can show a consistent ability to score the ball, then they could be the go-to choice as rebound stats between the three are very similar.
The Pilots also made some changes to their scheduling. Only scheduling three of the same preseason opponents as last season, Portland will play against a plethora of new faces this season. The Pilots will play nine of their 14 preseason games on their home court before playing in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii over Christmas.
The tournament will bring Portland’s toughest test against the University of Houston who went 33-4 in 2018 before making it to the NCAA tournament regionals, falling to the University of Kentucky, 62-58.
The Pilot’s other preseason test will be a road game against the University of Southern California. The Pilots welcome the challenge of a Pac-12 opponent and are excited for the opportunity.
“USC is one of the big teams we got this year,” Walker said. “If we get that win, you know how like we at the bottom, it will tell a lot of people they were wrong.”
It will not get easier for Portland following the preseason. The first three league games for Portland are Gonzaga, San Francisco and BYU. All three of these teams were in the top four of the WCC last season, and both Gonzaga and San Francisco had over 20 wins while BYU had 19.
Additionally, seven of the ten teams in the WCC last season posted an overall winning record. Portland will have to take advantage of every chance they get if they want to compete in the WCC this season.
The Pilots handled their first opponent of the year in an exhibition game on Sat. Nov 2, beating George Fox 89-72. Leading scorers in the game were junior forward Tahirou Diabate with 20 points on 9-10 shooting and redshirt junior guard Malcolm Porter who scored 15 points while also grabbing 4 rebounds. Diabate starting with a strong showing on the scoring front is a good sign for the Pilots.
Portland will open their regular season on Tuesday, Nov. 5 against Willamette University. Portland will have 16 non-conference games to prepare for their WCC games, and decide the outcome of this new season.
Jamison White is a sports reporter for The Beacon. He can be reached at email@example.com.