At the risk of being hyperbolic, last season had a clear contender for the most unique non-conference run in recent memory.
Freshly-minted Portland State coach Barret Peery got his team off to a flying start, with a cross-town win over Portland and quality win over Utah State before Thanksgiving. That may have qualified as a non-conference splash in of itself for a first year coach, but the Vikings’ season would get a major shot of adrenaline.
The PK80 was the event of Feast Week 2017, drawing some of the biggest Nike-affiliated programs to Portland to celebrate Phil Knight’s 80th birthday. Trae Young and Oklahoma were there. Mark Few and Gonzaga were there. Duke, of course, was there.
The event may have sapped other Feast Week tournaments of star power, but it did the opposite for PSU. For the first time since Ken Bone brought the program to consecutive NCAA Tournaments in 2009 and 2010, the national spotlight was on PSU. The Vikings, along with Portland, got the local invite, and made the most of the opportunity.
Peery’s inaugural team led Duke at halftime, putting a scare into the Blue Devils before falling late.
“I thought Portland State played amazingly hard and well,” [Mike] Krzyzewski said. “They knocked us back.”
The Vikings then took another eventual NCAA Tournament participant, Butler, to the wire in a two-point loss before knocking off Stanford in their third and final game. For Peery, PK80 was a momentum-generating experience.
“The biggest thing was it kind of helped people understand who we are and what we’re doing, and that we have good things going on here,” he said.
PSU would add a pair of WCC road wins (Loyola Marymount, Santa Clara) and another Pac-12 win (California) before Big Sky play began. In the end, it was a precursor to a 20-win season that landed the Vikings in their first postseason tournament — the CIT — since 2014.
It also made for a difficult encore in 2018-19.
Without the PK80’s glitz mixed in, Peery’s second team went through an up-and-down, 5-6 non-conference run this season. Stung by injuries and cold shooting, the Vikings struggled to generate momentum against a schedule that featured seven teams ranked within the KenPom top 185.
But despite the inconsistent start, Peery may have just picked up his biggest victory to date.
Last Saturday, the Vikings snapped a five-game losing streak with a 77-74 overtime win at league-favorite Montana, a place they had not won since 2008. Missoula or not, it hadn’t been happy hunting for PSU against the Grizzlies, who had taken 16 of the last 19 games in the series.
As always, the Vikings were paced by sophomore guard Holland “Boo Boo” Woods, whose aggressiveness and efficiency from the line (28 points, 13-15 FT) sealed the tight win. He hit a game-tying three with under a minute left as a part of a furious PSU rally to force overtime.
It was the latest in a quality season from Woods (15.2 PPG, 5.0 APG), who was the only non-senior or junior to make the Big Sky’s preseason all-conference team.
“He continues to just get better every game,” Peery said. “The ball is in his hands a lot and he kind of makes us go. He’s grown a lot as a person. He’s not a freshman anymore, and has really become a good leader.”
The Vikings’ Achilles’ heel — three-point shooting — showed up again against Montana, as they went just six-for-23 from distance in the win. The team-wide woes are not something Peery said he’s tried to overemphasize.
“My biggest thing is making sure we take good shots, especially guys that haven’t felt great shooting the ball yet,” he said. “The best way to find confidence is to make sure you find good shots. We have kids that are good shooters that just haven’t shot the ball yet.”
That likely includes senior Deante Strickland, who is off to a cold start from deep (3-26 3FG) after being dangerous in 2017-18 (41.6% on 113 3PA). A trend toward last season’s numbers would be a boon for a PSU team that currently has the country’s third-worst team three-point percentage.
On the other end, the Vikings have taken strides toward disrupting teams the way they did a year ago. They forced Montana State into 18 turnovers on Jan. 3, and got an experienced Grizzlies team to cough it up 10 times last weekend. That could continue to improve as newcomers such as juniors Sal Nuhu, Robery McCoy and Michael Nuga get more experience in Peery’s high-paced system.
“I’m looking forward to getting to full speed,” the second-year coach said.
The team is halfway through a salty six-game stretch that started with the losses to first place Northern Colorado (3-0), as well as Montana State (3-1), which is currently tied for second. It continues this weekend in the Vikings new $55 million arena against league stalwart Weber State, before a road trip into high elevation against Southern Utah and Northern Arizona.
Sandwiched between was that win against Montana, made all the more crucial by PSU’s inconsistent non-conference showing. But while the start may not have been as flashy as last season, breaking the losing streak in Missoula must have Vikings fans hoping this year’s finish can be just as good a story.