I took a couple of hours the other night to watch Portland play Kentucky on ESPN at the Rose Garden so that I'd have an idea of how the Cougs might try to go about both stopping and attacking the Pilots tonight. Here's a quick look at what I saw as we head into tonight's Cougar Hardwood Classic.
First off, the Pilots aren't your typical mid-major team -- at least not the way most people think of them. Most people picture mid-majors as driven by scrappy shooters who can light you up from long range. Contain the shooting, contain the little engine that could.
While the Pilots do have their fair share of shooters -- we'll get to that in a second -- their offense is driven by their interior play. While most mid-majors like to play outside-in, Portland is decidedly inside-out, led by forwards Luke Sikma (yes, son of that Sikma, for those my age and older) and Kramer Knutson. Neither is especially heavy, but they're not exactly the beanpoles you often see from conferences such as the WCC either. Sikma runs 6-8/235 while Knutson is 6-9/225. Both are seniors, and both are skilled -- they each posted offensive ratings above 110 last season.
Guard penetration isn't the Pilots' strength, so they will dump the ball in to them early and often -- especially Sikma -- and everything else Portland does will be predicated by how WSU defends them. If DeAngelo Casto, Brock Motum, Patrick Simon and Abe Lodwick can handle them straight up without committing tons of fouls, WSU should be fine defensively. Why? Because that will allow our guards to shadow their excellent shooters, specifically Jared Stohl, one of the best shooters in the country -- 47.8 percent on 204 attempts last year. Eric Waterford, the junior point guard, also is a solid shooter, and as long as Dre Winston has a solid night while he's on the floor and doesn't lose him, he can be contained.
That's the formula Kentucky used to destroy the Pilots. Part of it was that Portland was just incredibly nervous and somewhat obviously in awe of the Wildcats, but part of it was that the bigs couldn't get anything up against Kentucky's size. That allowed a long defender (6-6 DeAndre Liggins) to shadow Stohl everywhere he went on the floor without having to worry about help defense. Look for Capers to shadow Stohl.
But if, for some reason, Casto gets in foul trouble and it's clear none of the other bigs can handle these guys one-on-one, that's where trouble comes. The ball will go inside, we double from the weak side, they kick it out, swing it around and ... death by 3s, as Portland is shooting 44.9 percent as a team this year.
Conversely, WSU can argue the same thing. If Casto and Motum can get some of their bigs in trouble, then that bodes well for the Cougs. Sikma is an excellent rebounder -- he was at 27.6 DR% and 12.7 OR% last year, remarkable for a kid only 6-8 without Casto's leaping ability -- and getting him off the floor should open up the offensive glass, as that's hardly Knutson's strong point (9.7 DR% -- that's bad for a big).
Additionally, Portland just doesn't have the length on the perimeter to really bother Klay Thompson or Faisal Aden. Unless WSU has an exceptionally bad shooting night, I don't see any way Portland really slows WSU down.
The one wild card, of course, is this: The building is likely to be mostly empty. Without the energy of the fans -- which was a large driving force in last year's win over LSU -- will the Cougs suffer a drop in intensity? If so, and if that translates into any kind of lazy defense, we could have a shootout on our hands.
However, this is a team the Cougs really should beat. I won't say we should blow them out, but it should be clear who the better team is -- as long as we play defense.