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The Portland Pilots and the assumed value of a difficult non-conference schedule

Once upon a time, Portland was content to play middle of the road schedules. That all changed prior to last season. But the upgrade in schedule didn't translate into an upgrade in play during the West Coast season. Will the second time out with a brutal slate prepare the Pilots better?

Portland coach Eric Reveno would like to know what happened to his plan
Portland coach Eric Reveno would like to know what happened to his plan
Ethan Miller

In the spring of 2011, head coach Eric Reveno or then AD-Larry Williams or somebody at the University of Portland decided it was time for the men's basketball team to challenge itself in out-of-conference play. In the previous three seasons, Portland played decent, but not elite, non-conference schedules that ranked 154th, 88th and 120th strongest in the country.

During the 2011-12 season, possibly taking a page from the faux-narrative of older brothers Gonzaga and Long Beach St. getting better by notoriously scheduling up, Portland put together the eighth-toughest non-conference schedule in the country (Gonzaga's ended up the 74th most difficult that season, BYU's the 140th, every other West Coast Conference team was sub-200).

Portland sandwiched its 2011-12 out-of-conference strength of schedule nicely between the Kansas Jayhawks and the Howard Bison. And what could be more delicious, Coach Reveno assuredly thought, than a Kansas Bison sandwich?

But the sandwich tasted depressing. The most successful game of Portland's non-conference slate last season was the one where the Pilots went to Rupp Arena and lost by only 24 points to the eventual national champions. Portland lost to Rick Majerus' revitalization project in St. Louis and at the Chiles Center against perpetually not-bad teams like Ohio and Montana. Washington and Washington State beat Portland. Losses to Nevada and UC Santa Barbara constituted a pair of top-100 defeats. None of these losses were closer than 10 points. Most were between 20 and 30.

The line of thinking here was that it didn't matter if Portland came into WCC play at approximately 0-97. The Pilots were hungry to challenge themselves (just as they were literally hungry at O'Hare Airport yesterday when the team stormed a Wolfgang Puck's for nourishment and Wolfgang had to come out from the back in a floppy hat and tell them to knock it off) because becoming acclimatized to tough opponents in November and December would increase the team's chances of success in the conference's trenches, against the San Diegos and the Pepperdines, maybe even against one of the conference's big three.

This was a laudable plan, but it did not achieve the results the school was hoping for.

The Portland Pilots went 3-13 in conference and finished eighth. The team won three games last year against teams not named Santa Clara. That's not just in conference - that's throughout the entire season.

The same teams who challenged themselves out of conference in 2011-12 are the ones challenging themselves in 2012-13. Portland, Gonzaga and BYU once again boast the three toughest non-conference schedules in the league.

Depending on how neutral court games work out and how accurate preseason predictions are, San Francisco's and Saint Marys' will follow them in difficulty.

Here's what the three most-likely toughest OOC skeds are looking at (all rank KPom):

Toughest WCC Out-of-Conference Schedules
Gonzaga Portland BYU
vs. 19 Kansas State @ 1 Kentucky neu. 17 Notre Dame*
vs. 20 Baylor*** vs. 18 UNLV @ 20 Baylor
@ 43 Oklahoma State @ 21 New Mexico neu. 51 Florida State
neu. 44 Davidson* @ 56 Ohio @ 62 Iowa State
vs. 54 Illinois neu. 79 Virginia Tech* vs. 79 Virginia Tech
vs./neu. 58 West Virginia x2* neu. 92 Colorado State vs. 98 Utah State
@ 64 Butler @ 95 Washington State** vs. 103 Montana
neu. 77 Clemson
@ 95 Washington State

* Potential matchup, dependent upon tournament results

** Washington State will face three separate WCC teams this season, including Pepperdine in Malibu

*** Baylor, San Diego St., Virginia Tech, St. Louis, Mississippi and Tulane are among the many exotic locales that could get double WCC action, which is an unexpectedly sexual way to end a basketball sentence

Portland is executing last season's strategy all over again. Eamonn Brennan from ESPN ranked the team's OOC schedule a 10 out of 10 in difficulty. The results for Portland may be similar to last season's as well. New Mexico is likely to stifle the Pilots with defense. UNLV could simply out race Portland with a higher conversion rate on a large number of possessions. The Kentucky game may well be a blur of explosions and white players crying.

But these results are faits accompli, pre-ordained sacrifices on the altar of the league slate and bolstered AD budget. The real question is whether the plan benefits Portland's in-conference play as it's supposed to.

On one hand, the Pilots' 2011-12 average margin of loss against non-conference foes (17.6 pts) was 2.3 points higher than WCC foes (15.3 pts), and the WCC results were skewed high by outlier 39-point and 34-point tarnishings at the hands of Gonzaga and USF. Portland lost four WCC games by five points or less, the most of any team in the league. The Pilots are simply looking to improve over last year. In order to do that, they need to win four regular season conference games or more. Some adjustments in late-game situations can help Portland win a few of those nail-biter situations if they re-present themselves this season, and hopefully ergo, win more than three games.

On the other hand, two of last year's three regular-season WCC wins came at the hands of Santa Clara. Those games are not assumed wins this season. With the return of healthy Marc Trasolini, shifty Evan Roquemore and sober Kevin Foster, Portland might never beat Santa Clara this year. When you factor in the Pilots' roster movements, the case gets less than shiny. Two of the team's four most significant possession contributors (meaning their possession percentage exceeds 24%), Nemanja Mitrovic and Tim Douglas, are gone. They are replaced by four freshmen that no one knows a clue about, but more than likely won't anchor the team.

The key to this whole exercise is determining how UP's four core returning players, Thomas van der Mars, Ryan Nicholas, Kevin Bailey and Derrick Rodgers, have improved over the offseason, and how they will improve as the 2012-13 goes along. Last year Portland found themselves outmanned in late-game situations. That could've been due to coaching, raw talent ability, or luck.

This is the second year in a row Portland will field an elite out of conference schedule.

Let's see if the team's in-conference results improve as a result.

Will Green writes about WCC basketball. You can crucify him or tell him about interesting new college basketball things @Zagacious on Twitter.