By John Crumpacker
Although he was neither born there nor grew up there, Terry Porter is about as Portland through-and-through as one can get. Playing in the NBA for the Portland Trail Blazers for 17 years, having his jersey retired by the team and sinking deep roots into the community qualify him as a semi-native.
Thus, it seemed to be a good fit when Portland athletics director Scott Leykam and university president Fr. Mark Poorman chose Porter in April to be the Pilots’ 21st head basketball coach in school history, succeeding Eric Reveno.
Porter had the Pilots off to a 3-0 start in his first season until they ran into No. 14 UCLA on Thanksgiving in the Wooden Legacy tournament, a game won by the Bruins 99-77.
“I think every coach wants to win a conference (title) and go on to the (NCAA) Tournament,’’ Porter said. “Everyone aspires to do that. The thing about our conference is we have three teams ranked in the top 30 (in preseason). We have a chance to be a two-bid conference. To be able to have that level of competition in our conference raises the bar for everybody in our conference.’’
It did not take Porter long to understand the dynamics of the top-heavy West Coast Conference. In fact, he was well aware of it before the season started, when I had a chance to sit down with the new coach at the WCC’s Tip-off event in Los Angeles – on Halloween, no less.
Yes, it’s a scary proposition for a new coach in the WCC to contemplate a challenge to the hegemony of Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and now BYU at the top of the league.
“There’s no doubt you’re trying to crack that ceiling,’’ Porter said. “BYU being a member has taken advantage of being in the top three. The rest of us are trying to get there, to be annually talked about being able to get up there. It’s a challenge and an opportunity to compete against those guys.’’
It’s a stiff challenge at Portland, to be honest. The Pilots have had only had five winning seasons in the last 20 years and just two winning WCC records in that span. And it’s only gotten more difficult with the addition of BYU and a conference schedule that includes 18 home-and-home games.
What’s a coach to do as he contemplates, Sisyphus-like, rolling that rock up the hill and not having it roll back and crush him?
“For us, it’s recruiting and recruiting,’’ Porter said. “We’ve talked a lot about character and being new and fresh and having an opportunity to build something and have some ownership. I’ve been blessed to have a great staff. All of them (assistants Bob Cantu, Ben Johnson, Kramer Knutson) have coaching skill. We talk about teaching and developing young men. What you have to do is get kids who believe your staff, who fit you style.’’
With only three seniors on the roster, including standout guard and leading scorer Alec Wintering (17.5 ppg), Porter will have an opportunity this season to lay the groundwork for 2017-18 as he and his staff develop their younger players.
For now, though, Porter will depend on Wintering, fellow guard Jazz Johnson (17.0 ppg) and forward Gabe Taylor (14.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg) to propel the Pilots. Wintering also averages 5.0 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game in his peripatetic style of play on both ends of the court.
“He’s a stat-stuffer,’’ Porter said in admiration. “On so many facets he helps the team. You need that when you’re trying to turn around a program. It’s a blessing to have him.’’
As he progresses in his career at Portland, the 52-year-old Porter said he will rely on the relationships he built over the course of playing 17 years in the same city where he is now coaching when it comes to recruiting. Many of his former teammates and fellow NBA veterans have sons interested in basketball who are contemplating playing in college.
“I’ll call them, see what kind of program their kids want,’’ Porter said. “You’re able to build relationships and recruiting is all about relationships.’’
When he sits down in the living room of a recruit’s home, Porter is able to boast of a 100 percent graduation rate for recent Portland players – no doubt inspiring mom to smile and dad to nod his head.
“We ensure them we have a 100-percent graduation rate,’’ Porter said. “We can promise their kids are going to walk away with a degree.’’
Turkey with all the trimmings
One of those trimmings being hoops. On a holiday synonymous with football, there was plenty of basketball as well, in particular three games featuring WCC teams.
Gonzaga advanced to the semifinals of the AdvoCare tournament in Orlando, Fl., with an 82-62 victory over Quinnipiac in which coach Mark Few’s team showed what a truly blended team can accomplish. By blended I mean experienced returning players (Josh Perkins, Przemek Karnowski) combining with transfers (Jordan Mathews, Nigel Williams-Goss) and skilled freshmen (Zach Collins, Killian Tillie) to create a potent product.
Santa Clara made No. 8 Arizona play a full 40 minutes to earn a 69-61 win in the Las Vegas Invitational. In the process, the Broncos earned respect for their start-to-finish determination. That shouldn’t be surprising given new coach Herb Sendek’s familiarity with the Wildcats and coach Sean Miller from his Arizona State days. Jared Brownridge’s 25 points had to be encouraging for Santa Clara considering the Wildcats hounded him in the second half in limiting him to nine points.
Portland, meanwhile, took its first loss of the season to No. 14 UCLA in the Wooden Legacy tournament by a 99-77 count. The Pilots hung in there in the first half, trailing just 45-37, but UCLA’s superior talent showed in the second half as the Bruins steadily increased their lead.
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Gonzaga’s Williams-Goss has been named to the 2016-17 Naismith watch list for consideration as the player of the year. The initial list of 50 players will be pared to 30 on Feb. 9. Through Nov. 24, Williams-Goss is averaging 11.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game and is shooting 100 percent from the free throw line (15-15). … One of the things I like about non-conference games is the totally disparate pairings of schools that have nothing to do with each other, like Tuesday night when Bethune-Cookman, from Daytona Beach, Fl., traveled to San Diego for a game won by the Toreros 96-91 in triple overtime. Brett Bailey had 26 points while Juwan Gray contributed 16 points and 17 rebounds.
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.