PORTLAND – The conventional wisdom is that everyone is chasing Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference men’s basketball race. Over the next eight days, the Bulldogs should find out how close those objects are in the rear-view mirror or if they’re the ones in pursuit mode.
The 19th-ranked Bulldogs (11-3) tip off conference play against Portland (9-5) tonight at sold-out Chiles Center in a matchup of teams picked to finish 1-2, respectively, in the preseason coaches’ poll. Next week brings road games against Saint Mary’s, picked third, and San Diego, never an easy assignment.
“Our conference is, if not the best in the West, it’s one of the best,” GU senior guard Matt Bouldin said. “Every game is going to be tough and we have a few tough ones right off the bat.”
Feeling’s mutual, Pilots coach Eric Reveno said. As GU’s travel partner, Portland also visits San Diego and Saint Mary’s next week.
“I’m very willing to put pressure on because of the fact that this is a home game,” Reveno said. “The thing that resonates is it’s a big game playing Gonzaga at home, but it’s the home part that’s almost more than the Gonzaga part.”
Portland boasts a balanced, veteran lineup stocked with 3-point shooters. Jared Stohl (44.6 percent on 3-pointers), T.J. Campbell (42.4), Ethan Niedermeyer (36.7), Nik Raivio (31.9), younger brother of former Zag Derek Raivio, and Taishi Ito (61.5) have accounted for all but two of the team’s 112 3s.
Stohl’s 10 3s and the Pilots’ 16 against Idaho established school records. Campbell would have led the nation in 3-point accuracy last year (53.1 percent), but he was four attempts shy of qualifying.
“They’re extremely skilled and they can really shoot the ball,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “If they’re open, it’s in.”
On the interior, Robin Smeulders, Kramer Knutson and backup forward Luke Sikma combine for 24.4 points and nearly 17 rebounds per game. Those three, along with Raivio and Campbell, have combined for eight double-doubles this season.
Portland’s nine-player rotation consists of five seniors and four juniors. Eight of the nine have played in at least 70 career games. Gonzaga has two with as much collegiate experience – Bouldin at 113 and Steven Gray at 71. Will Foster is next at 60.
“They’ve got a lot of the same faces back, which really helps in college basketball,” Bouldin said. “I never realized how much I appreciated veterans until this year’s team with all these young guys.”