Six weeks ago, it looked like Portland might provide some tough competition for Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference.
The Pilots’ impressive non-conference victories, though, have given way to some uneven performances, while the No. 19 Bulldogs seem to be rounding into their usual form.
That form includes having no trouble winning in Portland, which has been the case while Gonzaga has claimed nine straight league titles, and the Bulldogs will look for a 14th consecutive road victory and 27th in 28 games against Portland overall Saturday night.
The Pilots (9-5, 0-0) won their first five games, beating Oregon and UCLA before topping then-No. 22 Minnesota in the 76 Classic, a win that propelled them into the Top 25 for the first time in 50 years.
Portland has gone 4-5 since, however, losing by 20 at Idaho and 35 at Washington. The Pilots recovered from a 78-69 loss at Nevada on Dec. 28 with a pair of wins heading into conference play, the most recent a 67-57 victory over Army last Saturday behind 12 points and 19 rebounds from Luke Sikma.
While Portland looks to improve on last season’s trip to the CollegeInsider.com tournament, Gonzaga (11-3, 0-0) wrapped up the bulk of its non-conference schedule looking like a team primed to make its 12th consecutive NCAA tournament.
The Bulldogs bounced back from a 35-point loss to Duke on Dec. 19 with three wins in six days. They throttled Eastern Washington 94-52 on Dec. 28, beat Oklahoma 83-69 on Dec. 31 and defeated Illinois 85-83 in overtime Jan. 2 at the United Center.
“In our minds we made it like a tournament,” center Robert Sacre, who had 19 points against the Illini, said of the taxing stretch. “We played the Maui tournament like this with short preparation and we just knew what we needed to do.”
Sacre is one of four Bulldogs averaging between 12.3 and 15.1 points. One of those players is second-leading scorer Elias Harris (13.9 ppg), a freshman forward who scored the winning basket against Illinois.
Harris averaged 18.7 points and 10.7 rebounds over his last three games after finishing with five points and five turnovers against Duke.
“When we can get Elias the ball anywhere around the basket,” Few said, “he’s amazing at how consistent he is with delivering.”
Though the United Center was a neutral site in name only, Gonzaga played well in its lone true road test. Harris and Sacre had 17 points apiece, but the Bulldogs couldn’t hang on to a halftime lead and lost 75-71 to then-No. 2 Michigan State on Nov. 17.
Gonzaga has had no such problems at Portland. The Bulldogs extended their road winning streak against the Pilots to 13 last Feb. 5, getting 26 points from Matt Bouldin in a 93-78 victory.
Overall, Gonzaga has beaten Portland 12 straight times by an average of 17.3 points.
The Pilots’ Nik Raivio, brother of former Bulldogs guard Derek, had 19 points in last February’s meeting and leads his team with 14.6 per game.
To beat Gonzaga, Portland will likely need big men Robin Smeulders, Kramer Knutson and Sikma to hold their own against Sacre and Harris. The Pilots may also have to shoot well from 3-point range, as they are 6-0 when making at least eight 3s.