Gonzaga, Portland seeking momentum in Wednesday's clash

Feb. 6—Two teams that haven't had the seasons they envisioned collide Wednesday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

Gonzaga, accustomed to winning West Coast Conference titles and making extended runs in March Madness, trails Saint Mary's by two games in the standings and currently doesn't make the tournament in most bracket projections.

"That's the great thing about athletics, you have another one to get the bad taste out of your mouth," GU coach Mark Few said after Saturday's 64-62 home loss to the Gaels. "The goal this week is to try to have them remember the good plays — they made a lot of them (against Saint Mary's) — and then wash the other ones away and get ready to go out and get a win on Wednesday."

Portland won 19 games in coach Shantay Legans' first season, but his third season has been up and down. The Pilots (9-15, 3-6 WCC) showed positive signs last week with a pair of wins after a rough 2-12 stretch.

"The record is not where we want it at all, but the culture and where we're pushing this toward and the support we have is great," Legans said. "We've figured some things out as a program and done some things as a team. I've learned a lot this year as a coach, I'm open about that. We still have a lot to say about the end of the year."

So do the Zags (16-6, 7-2), who have another opportunity to boost their at-large credentials Saturday against No. 17 Kentucky in Rupp Arena.

"We use it as fuel," GU junior post Graham Ike said following the SMC loss. "We come back on Monday, we get better from it and continue to grow."

Legans, who guided Eastern Washington to the 2021 NCAA Tournament in the last of his four seasons before moving on to Portland, attempted to augment his returners, led by ex-Eagle Tyler Robertson, via the transfer portal.

"To be honest, the transfer portal could go one way or another," said Legans, who, like nearly every coach, has had hits and misses in the portal. "I'm a relationship guy. Getting in the portal sometimes is like speed dating. I've taken some guys that I didn't know a ton about. They're good, talented kids.

"We've tweaked some things, the kids are starting to play harder, buying into what we're trying to do defensively. We're shooting the ball really well and the ball is moving. Early on, we had guys that wanted to catapult themselves into the NBA."

The rotation has become younger and frontcourt depth is thin on experience. Sophomore Yuto Yamanouchi-Williams was scheduled to redshirt, but he now starts. A few other younger players projected for smaller roles are seeing meaningful playing time.

Freshman wing Tyler Harris (11.8 points, 7.3 rebounds) has been productive from the outset, but he's been battling an ankle injury. He practiced Monday and Legans said he's "50-50" to play Wednesday.

Redshirt freshman Bol Dengdit, a 6-foot-11 native of Australia, has played major minutes the past eight weeks. He's the reigning WCC Freshman of the Week after scoring 22 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in wins over Pacific and Pepperdine last week.

There are several familiar faces in the starting five. The 6-6 Robertson averages a team-leading 16.5 points and 6-5 redshirt sophomore guard Vukasin Masic, who averages 13.2 points, scored 32 points against North Dakota. Sophomore guard Juanse Gorosito is shooting 46.8% on 3-pointers in conference and has averaged 19.7 points over the past three games.

Robertson, who has 1,697 career points, is one of four players nationally with at least 1,500 points, 550 rebounds and 450 assists, joining Tristen Newton (UConn), Andrew Taylor (Mississippi State) and Baylor Scheierman (Creighton).

"This version (of Gonzaga) is tough because they have an inside presence and we haven't been a great rebounding team, though we've shown we can at times," Legans said. "For the third straight year, we're going to try to negate that inside presence.

"For them guarding us, all of our guys can shoot and them having to have those three (bigs) chasing our guys around the perimeter ... if we hit some shots it could be a fun game. We have to make sure we defend and rebound."

The Zags have struggled against the top teams on their schedule, but Legans said, "At the end of the day Gonzaga is going to end up being Gonzaga. They're going to get it going. I just hope it's not against us."