WSU Vs. Portland: A First Look At The Pilots

Portland head coach Eric Reveno appears to be unconvinced, even by his own declaration, that his team is #1.

The Washington State basketball team plays their second West Coast Conference road game of the season today as they travel to the Portland to take on the Pilots. This will kick off a road trip that will take the team down to Anaheim for the 76 Classic over the Thanksgiving holiday. It's good to see the schedule makers avoided playing a game at all over Thanksgiving break, it is well known how sparse Pullman can be when the students are out of town. It'd be nice if the conference schedule makers also took these things into consideration, but that is for a different thread.

Just like the Cougs, the Pilots lost a big chunk of their scoring, rebounding, and defense from a year ago. Three of their four top players in terms of minutes played and offensive rating were all seniors. The graduation of Luke Sikma and Kramer Knutson, who were 6-8 and 6-9 respectively, is a big blow to their inside game on both ends of the floor.  Sikma was among the nation's best rebounders a year ago, and was often the go-to-guy on the block.

With so much lost from a season ago, Portland is expected to suffer a drop-off this season. After winning 20 games in 2010-2011, KenPom predicts the Pilots to finish with only 13 victories this year. One of those victories could very well be against Washington State, as KenPom currently has this match-up as a toss-up, with Portland getting the slight lean.

Offense and Defense four factor previews after the jump.

OFFENSE

Last year the Pilots were a very good shooting team, finishing 34th in the country in effective field goal percentage. After losing the inside scoring presence of Sikma and the outside shooting of Jared Stohl, they have not shot as well so far.  Portland has had two very bad shooting performances in its first three games, posting a 43.5 eFG% against Florida Atlantic and 37.0 against the Washington Huskies. They had a decent shooting game against Georgia State, with an 56.5 eFG%, but that same Georgia State team let Florida Atlantic go off for 70.4% the very next night.

The most dangerous returning shooter is 6-5 senior Nemanja Mitrovic. Mitrovic hit 46.3% of his three-point attempts last season en route to a 60.6 eFG% (which was 42nd best in the entire country). Mitrovic is taking a higher percentage of the shots this season, and he has struggled with the new workload. Through three games, he has hit just 5 of 17 three-pointers and his eFG% has dropped to 44.3.  Even with his struggles, he is still someone that Washington State will have to keep an eye on, given how much they've been burned by the three in their opening two games. Being in front of the home crowd against a suspect three-point defense may be all Mitrovic needs to get his season going.  Throw in that, like Kevin Pangos, Mitrovic is a Canadian and all signs point to a breakout game.

Sophomore Ryan Nicholas also figures to be a factor on the offensive end. After playing very sparingly a season ago, he has seen many more minutes in replacement of the Pilots' departed big men. He has done well with his opportunities so far. Point guard Tim Douglas will have the ball in his hand the bulk of the time, but has hit on just 11 of 30 2-pointers. A wild card on the outside is freshman David Carr, who has knocked down 4 of his 9 three-point attempts this season.

Under head coach Eric Reveno, the Pilots have generally been middle-of-the-road nationally in taking care of the ball. They looked to be doing the same this season, save for their middle game against Georgia State in which they gave the ball away on 29.0% of possessions.  They did a much better job of holding onto possession against the Huskies and that bodes well for the future.

The loss of Stohl hurts in that he only turned the ball over on 10.9% of possessions a year ago, which is about half of the national average. Douglas was much more careless with the ball, giving it away 26.6% of the time. So far, he has improved greatly in that area, lowering his turnover rate to 18.9. Carr has been the biggest culprit in giving the ball away, having turned the ball over on 38.8% of his possessions. It's possible the freshman is still adjusting to the speed of the college game. WSU should look to attack when he has the ball in his hands.

Portland was has been an above average offensive rebounding team under Eric Reveno, and that has continued in the first three games. Against Washington, the Pilots were able to pull down 43.4% of their own misses after grabbing 39.2% of them against Georgia State. Sikma is definitely a hard man to replace in this category, with his excellent 13.6 OR% a year ago, but Nicholas has been a beast on the offensive glass. Nicholas has grabbed 17.9% of his team's misses this season after grabbing only 7.2% in limited action a year ago. 6-11 freshman Thomas Van der Mars will also be a man to watch out for off the bench.

The Pilots have not been a team that relies heavily on getting to the free throw line for offensive success, but they might have to change this season. Portland is taking far fewer three-point shots than they were a year ago, and are struggling to make two-pointers. Against more evenly-matched team, they have shown the propensity to draw fouls and get to the line. Against Florida Atlantic, they posted a 50.0 FTR (that's free throw attempts per field goal attempt), and followed that up with 43.5 against Georgia State. Their poor 20.6 rate against UW can probably be chalked up to just being physically overmatched.

Douglas is a guy that can make up for some of his shooting deficiencies by getting to the foul line. So far this season, he has posted a 53.3 FTR. As a 75% free throw shooter, this is how he has been able to be almost an average offensive player despite his poor overall shooting percentage. The Portland bigs have also asserted themselves in this category. Nicholas posted a 52.0 free throw rate a season ago, and is at 45.8 this season. He is also a very good free throw shooter, having hit 31 of 36 career attempts, so it be wise for Washington State to play sound defense and avoid fouling him. Reserve Dorian Cason has also shown the ability to get to the line in limited action this year. Don't expect Mitrovic to attack the basket much, he will likely stay on the outside.

Overall, the Portland offense will be very different that the one Washington State saw a year ago. Staying out of foul trouble will be crucial. The Pilots have struggled with their shot, and giving them free points on the line will be bailing them out. The Cougs can't let Mitrovic get going on the outside, he is man that can light it up in a hurry. The Pilots struggled mightily on offense against Washington, but it was also their third game in as many nights. With three days off, their shooters will have their legs and should provide much tougher competition for a WSU defense that has struggled to open the season.

DEFENSE

With Reveno at the helm, the Pilots have generally been a slightly below average defensive team. They started the year holding their first two opponents under one point per possession, but Georgia State and Florida Atlantic are not very good offensive teams. The Huskies had great success against Portland, scoring 1.25 points per possession.

Portland doesn't take a lot of risks, so limiting the shooting of the opposition is key. They did just that against FAU and GSU, holding each team in the low 40s for effective field goal percentage.  With a little bit a height down low, they should be able to make it difficult in the paint for opponents and limit the 2-pointers. However, they haven't blocked many shots, sending away less than 1%. Brock Motum should be able to find his way around in the paint and Reggie Moore should not be deterred from getting all the way to the rim.

There is an opportunity to burn them from the outside, as they are allowing opponents to shoot 35.8% from three. The Huskies were able to knock down 12 of 20 attempts against the Pilots. DaVonte Lacy, Mychal Ladd, and Faisal Aden have a chance to make an impact from the outside in this one.

Turnovers are not something that Portland actively seeks to force. A season ago, they were 306th in the country in defensive turnover percentage, and this season they are even worse. They have also done very little work in stealing the ball, which they have done just 3.4% of the time. That is 340th in the country. The Cougs should have no trouble keeping possession so long as they don't kill themselves with bad passes and dribbling into crowds (looking at you, Mr. Aden).

Defensive rebounding is something the Pilots will surely be worse at this season. They have allowed teams to grab 35.7% of their own misses, well above the national average of 32.7. Surprisingly, it wasn't the Huskies that padded that number. Georgia State was able to grab 41.2% of offensive rebounds. Despite his team's lack of success, Nicholas has done well on the glass so far, grabbing over 20% of defensive rebounds. The problem is that he is trying to replace the ridiculous 27.7% that Sikma posted a year ago.

Over the last few years, Portland has been above average at keeping their opponents off the free throw line. This year, they are off to a very good start, limiting opponents to a 23.2 FTR (27th nationally). Even the Huskies were unable to get to the line much against the Pilots. This is most likely a product of the same defensive philosophy that limits the amount of turnovers they force. Portland will not take a lot of chances, and is looking to play straight up and force a bad shot. WSU may not have a dominating free throw rate to bail them out in this game, as they did against Sacramento State.

The Cougs should be able to perform well against the Pilot defense. The lack of a shot blocker on the inside should keep the lane open for drives and for Motum in the post. If WSU can get Portland worried about the inside game, they are likely to have many open looks on the perimeter. It would be good to see Ladd bounce back from a poor game against Sac State and knock down some jumpers. If he doesn't, someone will and Wazzu should have an efficient day.

ADVANTAGES

Shooting: WSU. The inside presence of Motum means the Cougs should be much more successful on twos. This category will be close, as Mitrovic likely will be able to get his shot going and bury some threes.

Turnovers: WSU. Portland's point guard may be improved in taking care of the ball, but WSU should be able to generate some turnovers with the half court trap. The Pilots won't be forcing the Cougs to give the ball up much.

Rebounding: Portland. The Pilots has better rebounders than WSU on the frontline, and Motum won't get much help on the glass. WSU has been giving up offensive rebounds at a rate higher than the national average, and that should continue.

Free Throws: WSU. This is a tough call. Portland has been very good at keeping opponents off the foul line, and the WSU bigs won't be able to push around the Pilots' front line the same way they did against Sacramento State. Still, Reggie Moore should be able to create some opportunities for himself and others. On the other end, Portland probably won't be aggressive enough going to the basket to create a lot of foul shot opportunities. WSU was much better in their last game than they were against Gonzaga in this category, and they won't have Robert Sacre to contend with.

With the game being at Portland, this should be very tight and come down to the last few possessions. The Pilots definitely have personnel to exploit some of WSU's weaknesses, particularly from the three-point line. It will be important for the Cougs to limit their own mistakes. If they do, they should find plenty of good looks at the basket.

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