Hard Work Paying Off
by Jed Tai
Not many have faith in the Portland Pilots.
After finishing with a 6-24 record last season, the Pilots are picked to finish last in the West Coast Conference by most national media members and basketball publications.
But that doesn’t faze Portland head coach Michael Holton. In his second year at the helm of the Pilots, he has instilled an aura of “positivity” which has him, his team, and Pilot fans believing they can shock the world.
No, Holton and the Pilot faithful don’t have immediate hopes of an NCAA Tournament bid, something that has only happened twice in the school’s history and last occurred in 1996. But they do feel that they have in place a group of players that will play hard every night and compete with the best of them.
It hasn’t been an easy start for Holton. As a player at UCLA and in the NBA, Holton was a selfless point guard who was a hard worker and the consummate team player. Now as a coach, he expects no less from his players, and has tried to instill this same mentality in the group of guys he inherited and the new ones he has recruited. When he was hired prior to last season, it was late in the recruiting game and he barely had enough players for his team, much less any who could run the up-tempo style he wanted to play. But Holton found some gems on the existing roster with guards Casey Frandsen and Adam Quick, players who were willing to work hard and fit into his system. There were plenty of struggles, as the 6-24 record clearly indicates, but through Holton’s insistence, the players learned and adapted.
So, while the initial effort started two years ago, it’s this second season that Holton really feels the building will happen. A recruiting class filled with players Holton feels can fit into his system is now on campus, as he tapped into his Southern California connections to land some quality talent. Along with the experienced returnees from last year, Holton now has the depth that can make his system truly work – something which will hopefully translate into more wins.
The Pilots opened year two of the Holton era with an easy win over Division III Pacific University from nearby Forest Grove, OR, so their home game against San Diego State on November 27 would be their first true test. Led by head coach Steve Fisher, the Aztecs were a talented team which made the NCAA Tournament last season. They would also be a hungry bunch as they would be looking to rebound from a disappointing loss in their season opener against Eastern Washington.
The game would be slow in the beginning. With play ragged and the referees calling things tight, neither team could get into a rhythm in the first half, as turnovers and fouls plagued play. The score would be close throughout the period, although San Diego State would be in control for most it, leading as much as five points. Led by the trio of freshman sharpshooter Steve Sir and seniors Tony Bland and Mike Mackell, the Aztecs would take a 37-34 halftime lead.
The pace didn’t improve much early on in the second stanza. The first couple of minutes were basically a parade to the free throw line by both teams as fouls started mounting on both rosters. The Aztecs got into somewhat of an offensive flow, working the ball inside specifically to Mackell, who would score the team’s first seven points of the period. Two Deandre Moore free throws at 14:13 would cap a 12-3 run and give the Aztecs a 51-41 margin.
But the pace would finally pick up as Portland fought back. The Pilots started applying pressure at three-quarters court and it started affecting the Aztecs. Taking advantage of San Diego State miscues and continuing to draw fouls, the Pilots quickly got into the double bonus and converted at the line while sending Aztec players to the bench with foul trouble. They would also slowly work their way back into the game, as an acrobatic layup three-point play by freshman swingman Donald Wilson knotted up the score at 61.
At this point, the teams would swing back and forth exchanging key baskets. A Frandsen three-point basket for the Pilots at 5:25 was answered by a Sir four-point play at 5:01, only to be followed by an old-fashioned three-point play by Frandsen fifteen seconds later, tying the score at 75. However, at the 4:20 mark, Mackell fouled out for the Aztecs after a basket by Pilots center Ghislain Sema, and Portland would take a 77-75 lead from which they would never look back. A steal by Wilson led to a Frandsen fast break layup to give them a four point margin, and the Pilots hit free throws the rest of the way to hold off the Aztecs and post their second victory of the season, 91-86.
The Pilots were led by Frandsen with 20 points, but for the most part spread the wealth around as six players scored nine or more points.
With the victory, Portland went into the Thanksgiving with plenty of reasons to give thanks – and plenty of hope for the long season ahead.
“It’s a good win for us, and we’re excited,” said Holton. “But we’re not excited because we won, but because we defended, we scrapped, and we played with effort for 40 minutes. I think we understand that winning is a by-product of that.”
Playing hard and with effort is what’s important to Holton, who isn’t afraid of rewarding those who work hard for him. This was best shown by an interesting substitution Holton made late in the game with the outcome still at stake. Holton inserted freshman walk-on guard Brant Minor in the final minute, despite having not played him at all in the game to that point. The move paid off, as Minor hit a couple of free throws that helped seal the win.
“I think he really represents what we’re about,” said Holton. “Last game (against Pacific), we put him in for five minutes and he grabs seven rebounds. We showed that highlight to our team. Really, he’s the poster child of what we want to be. If you play hard, I’m going to find a way to put you into the game. I’ll play anybody on my roster if they work hard and let it all hang out.”
From the other side…
San Diego State is waiting for help.
The Aztecs almost ran out of players against Portland, as four players fouled out and Steve Fisher had to resort to using walk-ons Markee White and Ben Wardrop at the end of the game. Come December, this should no longer be an issue.
Because of NCAA rules, transfers Travis Hanour (from Arizona) and Chris Manker (from Oregon State) will not be able to play until early-to-mid December. Hanour especially, has reportedly been impressive in practice and will play immediately on the wing, while Manker will provide depth inside. So, in the meantime, San Diego State will try to get through their schedule until those reinforcements can come in and help them as they enter the Mountain West Conference schedule.
There’s also the case of McDonald’s All-American swingman Evan Burns, whose eligibility will be determined by the NCAA any minute now. Burns has been allowed to practice with the team while the school awaits a ruling from the NCAA Initial Eligibility-Waiver Committee, although the coaches have not worked with him at a full pace. However, the moment he becomes eligible he will immediately become San Diego State’s top talent and immediately be a key player as he becomes accustomed to the system.