Thursday, March 19, 2009

Can the confident Vikings pull an upset? Thoughts from Thursday’s shootaround from Taco Bell Arena

The Portland State players have never lacked a confident attitude in what so far has been a roller coaster of a season. On Thursday the No. 13 seeded team from the South Park Blocks came into Boise determined to compete.

But one underlying question regarding this team is, can they play their best basketball game of the season for 40 minutes and defeat no. 4 seeded Xavier, who is playing in their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament.

“Last year we were just happy to get the 16 seed,” said senior guard Andre Murray in a press conference before practice. “But now we’re coming here hungry. We’re looking to get a win or two.”

In order for the Vikings to reach their goal of the second round, they will have to take down a tough and much bigger Xavier squad.

The Musketeers are led by Senior guard B.J. Raymond who averages 14 points per game and played a significant role in the team’s run to the Elite Eight last season.

“When you look at his statistics, the senior season that he’s had arguably is one of the best that we have had in recent times at Xavier,” said Musketeers head coach Sean Miller, who is in his fifth season coaching the team from Cincinatti.

The Vikings took the court at Boise State’s Taco Bell Arena for a brief practice at 5:55 Mountain Standard Time Thursday evening.

Players rotated taking shots and ran various full court drills.Throughout the practice, the players were quiet and seemed to be playing very hesitantly as they adjusted to the new scene.

Unlike their opponent who ran practice about 90 minutes prior to Portland State, the Xavier players were very loose and acted off their prior NCAA tournament experiences.

One advantage the Vikings do have over Xavier is their ability to run the floor. If the Vikings want to compete in tomorrow’s game they must out-run Xavier and get transition buckets.

“I would like us to initiate the tempo of the game, try to get out, try to push it, see if we can’t get a good look at the basket in transition,” said Portland State head coach Ken Bone.

A few thoughts about the game:

I expect senior point guard Jeremiah Dominguez to have a solid game. The Big Sky tournament MVP has willed this team back to the NCAA tournament.

The defensive matchup against BJ Raymond will be interesting. It is unclear which Portland State defender will start off on Raymond although it will most likely be junior wing Phil Nelson. Junior forward Kyle Coston has played solid defense of late, in particular a nice effort in the conference championship game against Montana State

The Vikings Big men vs. Xavier Big men: If Jamie Jones and Julius Thomas can out run Xavier’s Jared Love, the Vikings can have easy scoring opportunities in transition.

Waters-Thomas combination: The Vikings bench will have to outplay Xavier’s lack of depth. In the conference tournament Dominic Waters and Julius Thomas connected frequently, with Waters dishing out brilliant assists that typically resulted in highlight dunks from Thomas.

Posted by Tom Sedun, Vanguard staff
All photos taken by Rodrigo Melgarejo, Vanguard photographer

Reporting From Xavier's Practice

Just moments ago head coach Sean Miller and the Xavier Musketeers flooded onto the court here in Boise. Only minutes into the Musketeers 40-minute shootaround, it is clear Portland State will have its hands full when the teams face off in tomorrow's opening round matchup.

Throughout the practice I will note observations about the Musketeers.

-Raymond might be a problem

Senior wingman B.J. Raymond is likely to give whichever Viking matches up with him fits. At 6-6, 226 pounds, Raymond is thick and muscular in a way that would describe only a few Vikings. On top of that, the All-Atlantic-10 First Team player shoots an impressive 42 percent from the three-point line, making him that much more dangerous.

Portland State forward Phil Nelson possesses comparable height, however, the primary difference is that the 6-foot-7 Keizer, Ore., native's frame is much leaner than Raymond's. If head coach Ken Bone opts to assign Nelson the tough task of guarding Raymond, then Portland State's best hope is that Nelson's long arms will help alter some of the his three-point attempts. When it comes to covering Raymond inside the arc, Nelson will likely need some help from the weak side, which will probably come from Jamie Jones or Julius Thomas from the paint.

-The comfort factor

It goes without saying that Xavier's recent tradition of participating in the March Madness festivities, appearing in the NCAA Tournament eight of the last nine years, gives the Musketeers a decisive advantage over a Portland State program making its second ever trip to the Big Dance.

With all of that experience playing on a stage that only the NCAA Tournament can create, Xavier is frankly more familiar with the pressures of competing in important games in March. The Musketeers have been exposed to the media attention, hectic travel schedule and hassle of quickly preparing for a team located on the other side of the country. And it certainly shows.

The Musketeers appear loose, laughing with one another and taking things in stride before the coaches broke up the party by demanding pristine execution during all the drills. While it is difficult to precisely articulate, it's evident through their body language -- and the fact that they spent the final five minutes of practice shooting half-court shots -- that Xavier's players and coaches are unfazed by the scene of the NCAA Tournament.

It will be interesting to see whether Portland State looks nearly as comfortable during its practice this evening.


The Musketeers have some solid shooters, their guards look fairly quick and they possesses size down low, but the most alarming reality for those close to Portland State is Xavier's sheer strength. Nearly every player on the roster has the appearance of a part-time trainer, especially a few of the wingmen--such as the aforementioned Raymond, C.J. Anderson and Derrick Brown--who should prove to be difficult assignments for their Viking counterparts.
Earlier this season Portland State dropped a couple respectable losses to teams comparable to Xavier in the strength category in Washington and Baylor. In both of those games the Vikings had trouble stymieing their bigger, more powerful opponents in the paint, leaving golden opportunities for the Huskies and Bears to capitalize.

If Portland State hopes to stop history from repeating itself Friday evening, then the Vikings must employ an up-tempo, energized attack that allows them to beat the Musketeers with their legs rather than being beat by Xavier's superior arms. This is how the Vikings neutralized Boise State's big men back in February, with ballhawking defense that turned into easy fastbreaks and a quick-but-accurate-trigger on the offensive end.

Men's Basketball Preview

What: NCAA Tournament East Regional First Round Game

Who: No. 13 seed Portland State (23-9) vs. No. 4 seed Xavier (25-7)

When: Friday, March 16, 4:25 p.m.

Where: Taco Bell Arena, Boise, ID

On the air: TV: CBS/ KOIN 6, radio: 800 AM (KPDQ)

2008 Tournament History:

No. 3 seed Xavier lost to No. 1 seed UCLA 76-57 in West Regional Final. Defeated Georgia, Purdue, and West Virginia.

No 16. Portland State lost to No.1 seed Kansas 85-61 in the South Regional first round.

Just a taste: The Musketeers of Xavier enter the big dance as regular season conference champion of the Atlantic 10 conference and are ranked 22nd in the coaches polls.

Their last game was a two-point loss to Temple in the A10 conference tournament semifinal. Temple went on to win the tournament securing an NCAA tournament berth.

Xavier has an impressive tournament resume with victories over last year’s National Champion runner-up, Memphis, and SEC conference champion Louisiana State. Notable losses for the Musketeers from teams competing in the NCAA tournament include an 18-point loss at Duke and a nine-point loss to Butler.

Two-time Big Sky tournament champion Portland State will come to Boise riding a season high six-game winning streak.

The Vikings were surprised by a No. 13 seed from the tournament committee after last year’s drawing of a 16 seed and a date with eventual tournament champion Kansas.

Portland State’s victory at Gonzaga stands out as the biggest win for the season while a one-point loss to PAC-10 regular season champion Washington shows that the Vikings can compete with teams that were given high seeds in the tournament. Washington, like Xavier, is a No. four seed in the West Regional.

Stars: Xavier has three starters that average double digits in scoring. Senior B.J. Raymond leads the team in scoring averaging 14 points per game, while forwards Derrick Brown and C.J. Anderson score 13.8 and 10 points each contest respectively. The Musketeers rely heavily on their rebounding. They are eighth in the country in total rebounds while holding opponents to an average of 62.3 points a game.

BJ Raymond

The Vikings will be led by senior captain and Big Sky tournament MVP Jeremiah Dominguez. Dominguez has scored in double digits in the last five games averaging 16.8 points in those games.

PSU will also rely heavily from fellow starting guard and senior Andrew Murray, who played a significant role in getting the Vikings back to the big dance for the second year in a row. Starting forward Phil Nelson and Jamie Jones will also need productive games for the Vikings to get the upset over Xavier. Both players struggled with scoring in the conference tournament.

X-Factor Matchup: Xavier’s Bench vs. Portland State’s Bench

The Vikings look to have a much deeper bench than the Musketeers. Junior guard Dominic Waters and forward Julius Thomas have developed a nice two-man game that has been difficult for defenders to stop. Waters is a threat from the outside while Thomas is a force underneath the basket. No player from the Xavier bench averages more than five points a game.

Written by Tom Sedun, Vanguard staff

Early Morning Pontificating From Boise

Boise State Univeristy

Earlier this evening the Vanguard arrived here in Boise. And after chowing down on dinner downtown and making a quick stop by Fred Meyer to pick up some last-second essentials, everything is winding down and most of the "Tournament Team" members are resting up for tomorrow's practice sessions.

However, while it is approaching midnight, I find myself in a coffee-induced state of perkiness. Joined in Boise by sports editor Skyler Archibald, beat reporter Tom Sedun and photographer Rodrigo Melgarejo, I already believe this trip to the NCAA Tournament is different for Portland State. At least it feels that way.

As the only member of this quartet that traveled to Omaha to cover the Vikings' initial foray into the depths of March Madness, I have a bit of perspective. Excitement fueled the tournament appearance last season. The team was thrilled to have "Portland State" inscribed across an official NCAA Tournament sign outside its locker room and appeared content just to share the floor with Kansas.

That overwhelming sense of excitement seems to be tempered this time around. Like Ken Bone and his team, I have experienced March Madness up close before, and this trip is defined more by a feeling of legitimacy and respect for the program developing in Portland's South Park Blocks rather than over-the-top excitement. And that starts with the athletic administration and flows directly down to the players.

Speaking of the players, Jeremiah Dominguez, Phil Nelson, Andre Murray and Co. will step on the floor at Taco Bell Arena slightly after 4 p.m. Pacific Time for a rather brief shootaround that better resembles a football walk-through than an actual practice.

In Omaha, the vast majority of the players were tense and reserved during in a similar mini practice session. Forward Kyle Coston was one of the few players that broke out of his shell, unleashing a handful of tantalizing dunks to entertain the scanty number of spectators that where on hand. But outside of Coston, the flashes of a team that had dominated its conference and deserved to have a chip on its shoulder were limited.
When the Vikings faced off against Kansas the following morning it was evident the uncomfortableness strolled on the court with them. With that said, we will know much more about how Portland State is feeling this year, and, as a result, what the Vikings' chances are of upsetting a solid Xavier squad.

If my faculties are functioning properly, I have a hunch Bone will have his players better prepared, both mentally and physically, and the Vikings will stroll onto the court a much more confident bunch than they did last year. It feels more like business--not pleasure--this time around.

But we will have a better idea if that is truly the case tomorrow. Check back throughout the day, but certainly frequent the blog and Web site in the late evening for the lowdown on practice, a pulse on the team's mood and an in-depth examination of Xavier.

--Nathan Hellman