When you're 4-10, you look at the positives. 'We lead the country in five-point losses or less, with six,' University of Portland coach Michael Holton says. 'And we're second in 10-point losses or less with eight.
'I don't know if that's a good thing or not,' Holton says with a chuckle. 'What does it say? That's why I'm scratching my head. We're right there, putting ourselves into position to win games, in spite of being short-handed with six scholarship players and injuries. It also says something about us needing to learn how to win.'
The meat of the schedule starts this weekend with the first two West Coast Conference games, against San Diego (today) and Santa Clara (Sunday), both at UP. The WCC coaches pick Portland seventh out of eight teams, and even Holton concedes that the Pilots are light years behind the best in the country, er, conference Ñ Gonzaga.
'I've watched them play a lot, and they're clearly a cut above everyone,' Holton says of the the 18th-ranked Zags (13-2). 'They have a deep roster and no weaknesses, and coach (Mark) Few has found a way to keep a deep roster happy.'
How does Gonzaga do it? It sports one of the country's top 3-point shooting guards in Dan Dickau and one of the West Coast's premier front lines in 6-9 Ronny Turiaf, 6-8 Cory Violette and 6-8 Zach Gourde. They get their big men the ball in the right spots, and they run the fast break as well as anybody.
'The things they do every night are defend and rebound,' Holton says. 'They make it look easy.
'You have to play great, and there has to be a particular facet they don't do well that night Ñ an off shooting night, or they turn it over more than usual. You have to shoot the ball well from the perimeter and put pressure on their defense É somehow.'
Well, Portland's gunners Ñ Casey Frandsen, Adam Quick, Ross Jorgusen, etc. Ñ are on pace to set a school record for 3-pointers, making 7.7 per game (the 1991-92 Pilots made 7.2). So, maybe, just maybe É
Actually, the Pilots have more pressing concerns, such as San Diego, Santa Clara and trying to cut down on an average of 19.4 turnovers per game. Holton says turnovers and blown leads of 16, 11 and 10 points are the byproducts of UP committing to an up tempo, full-court game.
'When you're short-handed and banged up, you're going to run out of gas,' Holton says.
Zags for Final Four?
It says here Gonzaga will make the NCAA Final Four. Never bet against a team that has two standout guards (Dickau, Blake Stepp), frontcourt depth with players who can score, and plenty of role players who don't demand the ball Ñ who are content to rebound and defend. And nothing develops an indomitable spirit more than constantly being called an underdog.
Someday, maybe Holton can build the Pilots to such heights. Someday.
The Gonzaga road show arrives at the Chiles Center on Feb. 2.
Across town, the PSU men open the Big Sky Conference season with home games against Montana State (today) and Montana (Saturday), having gone 6-7 in the preseason.
The Vikings have been picked seventh out of eight Big Sky teams. Portland State has developed balance: Four of its scorers are averaging in double figures, led by Anthony Lackey (13.7 ppg), and point guard Aaron Fitzgerald has emerged, having scored 53 points in two wins last week.
But can the Vikings survive getting seriously outboarded, to the tune of 10 rebounds per game?
No question the Oregon men have gone through growing pains Ñ painful ones for the Ducks, who don't like to play defense. Coach Ernie Kent brought in assistant Fred Litzenberger, the former UO women's assistant, to concentrate specifically on improving the Ducks' defense.
Some players were turned off by 'Litz' initially, and Freddie Jones says he had to earn their respect. 'Now,' Jones says, 'we love him.'
The Ducks are averaging 88.1 points per game, best in the Pacific-10 Conference, and they lead the league in scoring margin at plus-20.2. Of course, the eight-game home winning streak has produced a plus-32.7 scoring margin.
'My goal is to keep it above plus-10 overall,' Litzenberger says.
NOTES: The Oregon women played most of five recent games without Edniesha Curry, Shaquala Williams' backcourt sidekick. She was sidelined by an injured foot. When healthy, the two are the best backcourt combo in the Pac-10. É Williams, of Portland, had 31 points against Arizona State Ñ equaling her career high. She also is on pace to be the best free-throw shooter in UO history, hitting 82 percent, just ahead of Laurie Landerholm (81 percent). É UO freshman guard Catherria Turner, an Arizona prep standout last year, has been released from her scholarship, per her request. É