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Pilots, Vikings look to crash through NCAA roadblock



TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Bryce Pressley (left) of the Portland Pilots goes to the basket against Portland State's Cameron Forte.Earlier this season, the Portland Pilots brought back members of their 1995-96 NCAA Tournament team for a 20-year reunion.

Just think: Some members of the 1995-’96 team are now north of 40 years old, and some of the members of the current UP Pilots had not yet been born the last time the Pilots went to the Big Dance.

All the young fellas know is Gonzaga dominance in the West Coast Conference, and right behind the Bulldogs is usually Saint Mary’s. Gonzaga has been an NCAA Tournament team every year since 1999.

Do the Pilots even think about making the NCAA Tournament these days? Yes, they do.

“That’s all of our goals,” UP star guard Alec Wintering says. “We want to be able to move on and get to the NCAA Tournament. We need to work on one game at a time and get to the (WCC) tournament, get to the championship and win that. We can put a game together and beat those teams. They’re not unbeatable. You just have to have the belief we can beat them.”

It’s the same feeling at Portland State, which won the Big Sky Conference and appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 2008 and 2009 under the leadership of coach Ken Bone and then-assistant Tyler Geving. Now the head man, Geving has guided the Vikings to one postseason berth (2014 College Insider.com Tournament) in six previous seasons.

Meanwhile, Oregon is on the rise with coach Dana Altman as the favorite to win the Pac-12, and OSU is trending upward under second-year coach Wayne Tinkle.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the near future with our city’s Division I men’s teams.

The Pilots (11-15, 5-8 WCC) just swept Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount on the road, and now face Gonzaga (8 p.m. Thursday) and Saint Mary’s (7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18) at Chiles Center. The Bulldogs and Gaels sit atop the WCC, but the Pilots held their own in road losses to each team. Victories would certainly boost their confidence for the stretch run.

All but Pacific, which has a postseason ban, make the WCC tournament, March 3 to 8 at Las Vegas.

“Anybody can beat anybody, it’s a matter of going into every game and believing we can win,” guard Bryce Pressley says. “You have to believe you can win or you have no chance. We’re well-prepared, we’ll just go out and play.”

Wintering, a 5-11 junior from Charlotte, N.C., who’s averaging 19 points a game, and several other players return next year, and coach Eric Reveno says next year’s team could be even better, bolstered by new players such as Chiir Maker from Australia. Reveno, who won 60 games from 2008-09 to 2010-11, but has an 0-4 postseason record (College Insider.com Tournament berths), says he does feel the pressure to produce an NCAA team, even in the face of the significant roadblock created by Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. He’s been on the job for 10 seasons.

“I put pressure on myself to build a championship team. In this day and age, that means the NCAA Tournament,” says Reveno, who’s 141-167 (59-92 WCC) at UP. “I do feel that pressure. I feel we’re close. The league has progressed so much (with additions of BYU and Pacific and facility upgrades). It’s competitive, and every year I think we’re getting closer.”

The Pilots beat BYU on their home court and swept two games from Pepperdine, which showed them their potential, Wintering says. The next step would be to knock off Gonzaga and/or Saint Mary’s.

The Pilots often play tough against Gonzaga, which features former Jesuit High star Kyle Wiltjer and former Trail Blazer Aryvdas Sabonis’ son Domantas Sabonis.

“We have to put together a full defensive effort for 40 minutes,” Wintering says. “We need to fly around on defense and make plays and get second-chance points, limit them to one shot and then transition into points.”

As far as Saint Mary’s, Pressley adds: “They’re one of the best offenses in the country. We need to play our game, probably even better defense. They’re really good at shooting 3s, and we need to close out on shooters.”

The Pilots have some “nice pieces,” Wintering says, but “the biggest thing we need to work on is defense, and be able to put a full game together, and be able to finish possessions with a rebound. I think we do a great job of scoring the ball.” The Pilots had solid defensive games at Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount, playing without lulls in execution and effort, Reveno adds.

Says Pressley: “I feel like we play really well together, everyone loves sharing the ball. We can shoot a little bit. D’Marques (Tyson) is shooting great. Alec is being a great leader, scoring and distributing.”

The Vikings beat Montana State this past Thursday, and then dropped a two-point loss to Montana, one of the Big Sky’s better teams.

Portland State is a big team with Isaiah Pineiro (6-6), Collin Spickerman (6-7) and Cameron Forte (6-7), the latter a graduate transfer from Georgia leading the team in scoring (17.4) and rebounding (9.0). The Vikings (8-13, 4-6 Big Sky) are ninth in the 12-team Big Sky, but each team makes the league tournament, March 7-12 at Reno, Nev. Like the Pilots, the Vikings hope to play their best in early March, which means shooting the ball more consistently from outside.

(And, in the Big Sky, a Gonzaga-caliber team doesn’t stand in the way of making the NCAA Tournament).

“We’re better than what our record shows,” says Geving, who has a record of 92-112 (51-66 Big Sky) in his seventh year. “It’s been kind of a crazy year. These kids have been great to coach, we haven’t had an attitude problem. They practice hard even when we were losing. Everything you can want as a coach this team is doing. That’s the frustrating thing. These kids need to get rewarded, they’re doing things the right way.

“There are seven games (losses) that could have gone either way, a lot came down to the last possession. You win those, instead of 8-13 you’re 13-8. Then you’re a great team and coach. But everybody in the locker room is still believing.”

Geving says chemistry has been fine, but Spickerman, the Jesuit High product and Big Sky leading shotblocker and a team leader, says the addition of Forte slowed the team’s chemistry somewhat. It’s better now.

“Honestly, it’s been a process, finding ourselves,” he says. “We’re starting to figure it out, playing together more on offense. It’s been a challenge finding the chemistry, we’ve not always been on the same page. When we do, we look great, when not we look terrible. We have the talent.”

The Vikings also have a young team, and will add Bryce Canda from Grant High and junior college ball next season and Braxton Tucker returning from knee surgery.

Like Reveno, Geving feels the frustration of not getting to the NCAA Tournament. He thinks brighter days are ahead not only because of talent, but because the university will renovate the Stott Center, which should make it more attractive to recruits.

“It’s not like it can’t be done,” he says, of making the NCAA Tournament. “I was part of that (in 2008-09), I know what it takes.” The program was hurt early in Geving’s tenure by being put on probation because of academic issues.

“We’ve been in the final four of the conference tournament three times,” Geving says. “You’re right on the doorstep; a couple of those semifinal games, if not for Damian Lillard (at Weber State), we would have moved on.

“You want to do it as a head coach, you have something to prove, it’s the next step for our program. I really like our kids and what they’re doing and their approach; I tell them to stick with it.”

Spickerman was in middle school when the Vikings went to the NCAAs in back-to-back seasons.

“It’s our goal,” he says. “Everybody makes the conference tournament. We’d like to set our sights higher.”

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.COURTESY: UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND - Junior point guard Alec Wintering leads the Portland Pilots.