Portland men’s basketball coach Eric Reveno is getting congratulatory e-mails from ecstatic professors. There are increased demands on his time because of an unusually high number of interview requests from the media.
That’s what happens when a team picked to finish sixth in West Coast Conference preseason polls finds itself on a six-game winning streak entering perhaps the biggest regular-season home game in school history. No. 18 Gonzaga (16-4, 7-0 WCC) visits the second-place Pilots (15-7, 6-1) Thursday at 8 p.m.
“It’s all good stuff,” said Reveno, the third-year head coach who was previously an assistant at Stanford. “It sort of comes with the territory. I want to keep it going. I’m hoping they still want to talk to me in two weeks.”
Portland has experienced a number of milestones along the way. The Pilots’ win over Saint Mary’s on Saturday was their first over a ranked opponent since Dec. 11, 1981. They’ve never been 6-1 in conference since joining the WCC in 1976-77. Their 15 wins are the most since the 1996 team won 19 and advanced to the NCAA tournament. The school has never won a regular-season WCC crown.
“The fact that we put ourselves in this position so that it’s a relevant game in the conference standings is huge,” Reveno said. “If we wake up the next day 6-2, we still have a lot of things and goals that we can reach. If we wake up 7-1 it will be a signal – I’m not going to say it’s nothing. Either way, we still have a lot of basketball in front of us.”
So how did the Pilots get to this point? Reveno said the emergence isn’t quite as dramatic as it appears to those inside the program because he thought last year’s nine-win team should have won 3-4 more games.
Reveno said the team’s off-season work – individual skills improvement and conditioning strides – was exemplary. After going against the likes of Gonzaga’s Josh Heytvelt, BYU’s Trent Plaisted and Washington’s Jon Brockman as a freshman, center Kramer Knutson gained 20 pounds to better handle the physical demands. Three-point specialist Jared Stohl added much-needed strength. Nik Raivio, younger brother of former Zag Derek Raivio, gained a better understanding of Reveno’s system.
“I really think the No. 1 thing has been the focus and determination of the players,” said Reveno, who also noted the importance of new point guard T.J. Campbell. “Last summer was one of the best off-seasons of any team I’ve worked with and the strength, conditioning and development of belief and toughness that came with that were really significant.”
Gonzaga defeated the Pilots 67-50 in Spokane on Jan. 10. Portland was within 10 points with 5:30 remaining.
“I kind of called them as one of the teams that could fight their way into the upper echelon,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few said. “I felt they were experienced and had a group of highly skilled guys and some tough, physical inside players to go with it. It’s a great mix and Eric has done a great job developing those guys.”
Pilots’ fans stormed the court after the Saint Mary’s win. It was a satisfying victory for several older Pilots, who remembered losing to the Gaels by 40 in Portland two seasons ago.
“People don’t quite know what to make of it,” said Reveno, who doesn’t have a senior on his roster. “We’re not a well-oiled winning machine by any stretch, so it’s new to us. What I’m trying to focus our players on are the things that are allowing it to happen – the fundamentals, etc. – aren’t new to us.”
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