The Portland Pilots want to use their two remaining non-conference games to iron out wrinkles in advance of the West Coast Conference season.

There have been ups and downs through the 6-4 start, but it seems reasonable to conclude that the Pilots are capable of improving on last season's total of 11 wins and contending for an upper-division finish in the WCC. The league opener is Dec. 28 against San Francisco at the Chiles Center.

“It’s sort of like your last couple hours of preparation before an exam,” Pilots coach Eric Reveno said. “You just want to sort of organize your notes and stuff. We’re not rebuilding anything right now.

“The WCC season is coming up fast. Two weeks from today, we’ll have two WCC games under our belt. I think at this point, we really need to make a push and be playing well. We’re close.”

The Pilots left Wednesday for the Holiday Hoops Classic at South Point Arena in Las Vegas. They'll take on the Bradley Braves (5-5) of the Missouri Valley Conference at 5 p.m. Friday and the Princeton Tigers (8-1) of the Ivy League at 8 p.m. Saturday.

“It’s a good test for us,” Reveno said. “For us to go down there and win two on a neutral court is where we should be and where we want to be right now. Not to say we have to win, but at this point in the year, it would be two good wins for us.

“The No. 1 thing is we’re playing better basketball. I’d be happier if we were 7-3. Being 6-4 is probably near the bottom range of happy. But I’m more happy with how we’re playing, and I’m more happy with individual players’ improvement.”

Kevin Bailey, the 6-5 junior wing, has been more productive in almost every offensive category. His scoring is up, rebounds are up, assists are up, field goal shooting percentage is up, and turnovers are down.BAILEY

Thomas van der Mars, the 6-11 junior center, has seen his scoring average soar from 7.9 points a game on 54.3 percent shooting at the end of last season to 12.8 points a game on 61.8 percentage shooting so far this season. He also has made modest gains in rebounds, assists and steals, and cut down his turnovers.

Freshman point guard Alec Wintering has made an almost seamless transition from high school ball to the college game. He has been particularly efficient over the last five games when he has averaged 7.8 points with an almost 4 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Ryan Nicholas, the 6-7 senior forward, is averaging a WCC-leading 10.1 rebounds a game and already has as many doubles-doubles (4) as he had through 14 games last season.

As a team, the Pilots rank in the upper half of the WCC in 10 key statistical categories: Scoring offense (80.2), scoring margin (+8.1), free-throw percentage (.744), field-goal percentage defense (.418), rebounding offense (39.1), blocked shots (5.0), assists (16.7), assist/turnover ratio (1.4), defensive rebounds (28.2), and defensive rebound percentage (.731).

The Pilots still need work on shooting 3-point field goals and defending 3s, and they’d like to get more offensive production from their bench.

Aside from that, they want to concentrate on the things that have brought them success to this point — pressure defense, taking care of the ball, good ball movement, and taking good shots.

“We’re really playing well together,” said Bailey, who ranks sixth among WCC scorers at 17.6 points a game. “We definitely play more as a team. You can see the way we play, you know that I know Thomas really well, Ryan knows me really well, and even with the new guys coming in, we’ve gelled nicely.

“Right now, we have a great foundation. We’re unselfishness, that’s a big part of it. We’re not turning it over, we’re much stronger with the ball, and all that equals wins for us.”

Several players said this season’s turnaround started in August when the Pilots toured Spain and played five games in seven days against international competition, including games against senior national teams from Angola and Venezuela.

The foreign tour was as much about experiencing a foreign culture and having some fun as it was about playing basketball. The players and coaches bonded, and from a basketball perspective, it was particularly rewarding that the team’s four newcomers — Volodymyr Gerun, Bobby Sharp, Aitor Zubizarreta, and Wintering — got a jump start on how the Pilots like to do things.

“They got 10 practices and five games before their first season with us even started and at a time when not a lot of teams in the country are playing games,” Nicohlas said. “You can show new guys the play book all day and show them film, but Alec running the offense before the season even starts … that’s huge.”

The Pilots also grew closer off the court and have seen that carry over to life back on The Bluff.

“Everyone gets along well,” senior guard Korey Thieleke said. “We spend almost all of our time with one another. Even our freshmen hang out in our row house pretty much all the time. My freshman year, that didn’t happen.”

Winning helps.

“In every season, losing and rough stretches often exposes a team’s chemistry,” Reveno said. “I don’t want to compare teams or groups of guys, but we’ve had teams that became fragmented with the struggles they had and the adversity they faced. This group, if it were to face adversity, does seem better positioned to rebound.”

The Pilots are looking to bounce back after Sunday’s 72-69 loss to Montana State snapped a three-game win streak. Bailey led all scorers with 26 points, Nicholas added 15 points and 15 rebounds, and the Pilots led by as many as 11 points in the first half, but the game was decided at the foul line as the Bobcats’ converted 20 of 31 free throws and the Pilots made 10 of 12.

Nicholas chalked up the loss as a learning experience — one that could pay dividends later.

“If we don’t fix the things we did wrong against Montana State, that’s how we’re going to lose to some of the teams in our conference,” Nicholas said. “There are no excuses for us to not know what we’re doing out there in terms of the scheme.

“When we’re at our best, we’re sharing the ball, we’re reversing the ball, we’re playing defense, and we’re competing. We’ve got some things to clean up right now, but that basic formula — competing and playing defense — never changes.”

Said Thieleke: “We feel good going forward. Yeah, our record could be better, but we’re not going to dwell on the past.”

The Pilots have used the same starting five — Bryce Pressley, Bailey, Nicholas, Van der Mars, and Wintering — in each of the first 10 games, with Riley Barker, David Carr, Gerun, Sharp and Thieleke seeing the most playing time off the bench. None of that is expected to change during the next two games in Las Vegas.

“As I’ve said before, I think our team is good and I think there are a lot of good reasons for optimism,” Reveno said. “The elephant in the room is the start of WCC play and are we ready for that?

“We’ve got to be performing really well, really early, because we have five consecutive home games to open league play, and those are gold. You’ve got to protect home court in the WCC and then try to split on the road. So, I guess the main thing I’d like to do in these last two games is play well and gain some confidence in what we’re doing.”

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