Portland takes advantage of chance
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Debate the plight of the teams outside of the so-called "power six" conferences all you want, but the unfortunate reality is this: The chance to gain selection committee recognition is usually earned on a neutral court in November.
Unless the team picks up a win in December against an NCAA-bound, major conference team -- or has a highly rated team in its conference that it plays (the Gonzagas, Butlers and Xaviers of the world) -- differentiating itself from a team in a big conference is incredibly difficult after Jan. 1.
That's why Portland's win over No. 16 Minnesota on Friday -- 24 hours after a 27-point pounding of unranked and probably NIT-bound UCLA -- was so crucial to the Pilots' fate. The berth in Sunday night's 76 Classic championship game against No. 8 West Virginia (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET) allows Portland to play three "power six" conference teams in four days on a neutral court at the Anaheim Convention Center.
The Pilots did get Oregon at home (the conclusion of an eight-year series) and go to Washington later this month in a true road game. But the Huskies, Gophers and now Mountaineers may be the only NCAA-bound teams that Portland plays before facing Gonzaga twice in conference play.
In the formula for earning an at-large berth for a team outside of the major conferences, true road wins, neutral-court wins and wins over NCAA tournament teams are a must.
"You've got to beat good teams," said Butler coach Brad Stevens, whose Bulldogs lost to Minnesota on Thursday to set up the Pilots' semifinal game against the Gophers. "There's no doubt they're doing that."
West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich said prior to last season the league pleaded with the ESPN Regional programming arm that runs the 76 Classic to look at Portland as a viable team for the 2009 field. The thought was that the Pilots would be a veteran team with experienced players like Robin Smeulders, Jared Stohl, Luke Sikma, Nik Raivio and T.J. Campbell combining to produce a very competitive squad.
"Our great program in Gonzaga can get games, and to be honest, our bad teams have no problems scheduling," Zaninovich said. "But our teams like Saint Mary's and Portland that are building, it's like toxic shock to get someone to play them. No one will play them, but you have to get the right games to stay up there. Portland got a chance. All you want for your schools is a chance to play on a neutral court, or if we go to your place then you come to ours. We prove ourselves pretty well if we have a chance."
The quality of wins by the WCC so far proves the league could challenge for one of the top 10 spots in the league rankings. Gonzaga should be a consistent top-20 team now after nearly winning at Michigan State and then winning the Maui Invitational with wins over Wisconsin and Cincinnati. San Diego knocked off Stanford, which nearly beat Kentucky, and then took out Oklahoma and Houston in the Great Alaska Shootout. Saint Mary's crushed potential Mountain West contender San Diego State. Loyola Marymount beat USC, which means the bottom of the WCC essentially knocked out the bottom of the Pac-10.
And then there is Portland and that stellar 5-0 start. Against the Bruins, the Pilots connected on 11 3s and limited UCLA to 5-of-23 from behind the arc. The perimeter defense was even better against the Gophers, as Minnesota went just 3-of-19 on 3s and the Pilots won by five.
"I think everyone is starting to know who we are,'' said Campbell, who had 23 points against the Gophers. "Getting these big wins means they will start to know Portland.''
Portland coach Eric Reveno is incredibly even-keeled. He doesn't get too sideways about much of anything. He has been to the elite as an assistant at Stanford under Mike Montgomery and Trent Johnson and seems to carry that same internal demeanor. He's not as stoic as the other two, but he's hardly gregarious.
But he produces a winner, a team that clearly has a shot to give West Virginia some trouble Sunday night with its composure, ability to make big shots and ability to rebound with big men Smeulders, Ethan Niedermeyer and Kramer Knutson.
Campbell is just as deft with the ball as West Virginia point guard Darryl Bryant. No, the Pilots don't have a pair of scoring forwards like Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks, but there are weapons on this team.
No one here would dispute that and by earning this spot, it is clear the Pilots are playing like one of the 34 best teams in the country -- something that they would have known only by playing power six teams on a neutral court in November. Portland belongs in this final.
And win or lose Sunday night, this team should also be in the top 25 for the first time ever when the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll comes out Monday morning. If the Pilots are ranked in the Associated Press poll, it'll be the first time since the 1956-57 season.
Smeulders said Portland has earned its spot in the top 25, even though it's hard to fathom for some. Reveno understands both sentiments.
"It's tough to get your hands around what could happen,'' Reveno said. "We are just going to continue to be grounded and level-headed. We have to focus on our goals, which are beyond Sunday. It's tough not to get distracted, but we have to let the guys celebrate these big victories and accolades that come with them.''
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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