Come mid-October, the WCC preseason poll always reads the same. Or close to it. It’s Gonzaga at the top, followed by either BYU or Saint Mary’s, then a cluster of other teams, then Portland.
Nothing is new this year. Portland got all nine of the last place votes in the poll and replaces essentially its whole roster. But out with the old, and in with the new. Out goes Portland Trail Blazer legend Terry Porter and in comes one of the west coast’s hottest names in coaching, Shantay Legans.
Legans had just finished his 12th season at Eastern Washington, his fourth as head coach, when Portland came calling.
“I had a couple of interviews before that, and I was talking to our athletic director, Scott Leykem, and he was talking about trying to win the whole league,” Legans said. “I had been on some interviews where they said, ‘try to get to the top five, top four,’ it’s a lot different than where I came from.”
What he was left with, though, was not a whole lot. Portland returns 1.7% of its scoring from the 2019-20 season, which is from two walk-ons. He had a whole load of scholarships to work with, and a short time to hand them out.
First, he had to recruit some of his Eastern Washington Eagles to come with him. One of them was Big Sky Sixth Man of the Year, Tyler Robertson. Robertson averaged 11.1 points per game last season at EWU and is now one of eight international players on the roster. Robertson played for Australia at the 2019 FIBA U-19 World Cup and credits his drive on the court to his international experience.
“You have to learn to come off the bench and get an impact whether it's in three minutes, four minutes, or 20/25,” he said in a postgame interview last March.
Jack Perry also makes the trek to Portland with Legans. Perry started eight games last season for the Eagles, averaging 4.5 points. Although he didn’t score much, Perry ranked 83rd in the nation in offensive rating.
“He was the main reason why I decided to come here and follow him,” Perry said of Legans. “If he wasn’t any good, I wouldn’t be here.”
Lastly, there’s Mike Meadows, who people inside of the program believe will have a huge impact. In the Eagles’ near-win against Kansas in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament, Meadows notched 12 points. During their nine-game winning streak, Meadows averaged 14.3 points per game.
Once Legans convinced his old players to come with him, he needed to recruit outside talent. Fordham transfer Chris Austin could be one of the sneakiest transfer moves in the country and will more than likely be the leader of this Pilots team.
“I feel like Chris Austin is going to be one of those guys where a lot of people are going to go, ‘man, where did he come from,’” Legans said.
Austin started all 14 games for the Rams last season, ranking 45th in the country in percentage of minutes used while leading the team in scoring at 11.4 points per game. Just like Meadows, Austin had a strong finish to his season, scoring in double-digits in eight of the Rams' last 11 games. In the Pilots’ secret scrimmage against Seattle last weekend, Austin dropped a game-high 22 points in a 75-71 victory.
The other key transfer for Legans is former UNLV and Tulane player, Moses Wood. Wood ranked 93rd in the country last season in block percentage. Along with starting eight games, his family has a big basketball pedigree, as his dad David played 15 seasons in the NBA.
Lastly, Legans has seven freshmen on his roster, three of whom are international.
“I’m really excited to see this freshman class, and how they progress throughout the year, and they’ve already done so far,” Legans said.
One is Matija Svetozarevic from Serbia. Svetozarevic played a couple of games in the highest level of Serbian club basketball, and also was a part of the U-16 national squad that placed fifth in the FIBA European Championships.
His quick playing style fits perfectly with Legans. EWU finished 27th in the country a season ago in adjusted tempo.
“I watched a lot of his older games, and I liked the way his teams played,” Svetozarevic said. There’s no real restrictions, he just lets us play basketball.”
Fellow Balkan Vasilije Vucinic is expected to be a big piece off the bench and has international basketball history as well. In 2019, Vucinic played for Montenegro in the U-18 FIBA European Championships, averaging 4.4 points and 4.7 rebounds per game.
With all this coming in, Portland might be in its best shape since the early Eric Reveno days. Legans always brings out a team of fighters, and with the middle of the WCC being the weakest it has been in a while, it truly is anyone’s game.
“It’s basketball at the end of the day, you keep your guys confident, you keep them happy, you keep them comfortable, I think we’ll have a pretty good shot,” Legans said on exceeding preseason expectations.
Portland’s journey will begin on Nov. 9 in a nationally televised game at Arizona State. The Pilots were able to beat 2021 Elite Eight team Oregon State last season, and will look to make it two straight years with a Pac-12 upset.
The rest of the WCC is officially on notice.