Know the Enemy: Portland State

OMAHA, NEB — It's been a record-breaking season for the Portland State Vikings.

The Vikings  reached their first-ever 20-win season at the NCAA Division I level. They set a school record with 23 wins and 14 victories in the Big Sky Conference. Their star player, 5-6 point guard Jeremiah Dominguez, set a Vikings’ single-season record with 82 three-pointers. He was also the first player in Big Sky history to win both Conference Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year.

This little-known school and largest university (nearly 26,000 students) in the state of Oregon is now hoping to make history again by beating No. 1 seed Kansas on Thursday at 11:25 a.m. at the Qwest Center Omaha.

A No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed. But Portland State, a rising program which has had three of its top four winning seasons at the Division I level over the last four years, believes it can do the impossible. After all, the Vikings enter the game as one of the hottest teams in the country, winning 14 of their last 15 games.

“Personally, I think we have a pretty good chance,” Dominguez said. “We’ve been practicing hard all week. We’ve been working hard all year. And we put ourselves in this position. So we’re not coming here just to lose. We’re pretty confident going into the game.

“Kansas is a great team. But I feel like we’re a a great team also. I feel like if we play a great game and give it all we got, we should be in good position.”

It certainly won’t be easy for the Vikings, who have played two nationally-ranked teams this season — UCLA and Washington State. Portland State lost at No. 2 UCLA in the season-opener on Nov. 9, and then fell to No. 8 Washington State, 72-60, on Dec. 9. Portland State’s RPI is 90, while the Jayhawks have a No. 5 RPI.

And the ‘Hawks boast some of the best guards and big men in the land. Portland State senior center Scott Morrison is impressed with KU’s bigs.

“(They) like to bang,” Morrison said. “They can rotate any four of them at the four or five position, and that’s going to be difficult, just with their strength and athleticism.”

Third-year Vikings’ head coach Ken Bone knows his team is facing a giant in Kansas.

“They’re a great team,” Bone said. “I had an opportunity to coach at University of Washington a few years ago before coming to Portland State, and after watching four or five videos, they remind me a lot of the team we had at Washington. (Portland Trail Blazers standout guard Brandon Roy and New York Knicks guard Nate Robinson were juniors on that team.) We were very quick, explosive, strong, athletic, we just got after it.

“(KU is) very, very similar to what we had at the University of Washington. And that was a scary team. ... So we have our hands full. They can hurt you in a lot of ways. We know what a great offensive team they are. They can score in the half court. But maybe  more impressive is how they push the ball in transition. They’re an outstanding transition club.”

Bone also raved about KU’s strong defense and board play.

“They (have) great quickness, aggressiveness, especially on the perimeter,” Bone said. “And then, boy, the rebounding is nothing like we see in the Big Sky.”

KU averages 39.4 rebounds per game, compared to 34.3 for the Vikings.

Bone said Dominguez’ play will be critical against KU’s taller guards.

“Jeremiah is our best player, and he has the ball in his hands a lot,” Bone said. “So what he does is kind of what we do as an offensive unit. Knowing that Mario Chalmers is 6-1 and (Russell) Robinson is 6-1, that’s like a 6-6 kid playing against a 7-1 kid. It makes it difficult. He has had some success playing against taller kids. But those kids were not in the Big 12. And Kansas’ guards are not only taller, longer, athletic, they’re polished. They know how to play.

“Jeremiah will have his hands full, but one thing he will do is he will leave it on the court. He’s a tough kid. He will come out and battle as hard as he can for as long as he’s on the floor.”

Bone hopes his entire team leaves it all “on the court” against Kansas. He knows, quite simply, this is their only chance to beat the mighty Jayhawks and make history.

“We tried to build them up as much as possible,” Bone said. “They’ve played with a lot of confidence the last couple of months. But this is a whole different deal. They understand that. So it’s kind of difficult to trick them into believing that, ‘Look guys, you really are better than Kansas.’ Fortunately, it’s not a seven-game series or a five-game series; it's 40 minutes of basketball. And anything can happen in 40 minutes. ... We are trying to instill as much confidence as we can in the kids, hoping they’ll come out and play loose.”

 “If we can get to 30 minutes, then I think we’re in good shape,” he added. “I think if we can be within four, five, six points with 10 minutes to go on the clock, then I think we would finish well in that situation. ... We just need to be able to capitalize on any mistakes they possibly may make.”

And Portland State must make as few of mistakes as possible to beat Kansas.

“We have to play a phenomenal game just to be with them,” Bone said.

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