Team preview: Portland
Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2004-05 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.
All it took was one game, one trip to a loud, sweatbox of an arena to unravel an entire season.
Riding a 5-1 start with road wins at Oregon State and New Mexico and an 86-70 win going away against eventual Sweet 16 team Nevada, Portland coach Michael Holton believed his program may finally have the breakout year he had been hoping for.
So when the Pilots visited Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium last Dec. 14, a venue Portland had played in before, Holton expected a decided challenge was at hand, to say the least.
What he got was horrifying, a scene so gruesome it was almost like watching a bad car accident unfold right in front of you.
Duke came out as if North Carolina was in the house. But it wasn't February on Tobacco Road. This his was a non-conference game that elite schools like Duke schedule to fill space on the docket.
A first-half blitz, a swarming, suffocating Duke defense, took the air right out of the Pilots, as the Blue Devils cruised to an 84-43 win.
"We obviously knew it was going to be tough," Holton said. "But we didn't expect to lose by 40. We get down 26-2 in the first half and it's even more of an up hill battle."
The Blue Devils, fired up over what they inferred as bulletin board material coming from Portland, were intent on sending a message. That, more than the margin of the defeat, is what deflated the Pilots.
"It got out of hand for us," Holton said. "It went beyond just losing badly. It was the level of intensity they came out with.
"It wasn't just another game for them and it wasn't just another loss for us. We struggled to make entry passes. Those things effect you mentally long after the game is done."
The setback set an ominous tone for the remainder of the season. The Pilots dropped seven of their next eight games, including a disastrous 19-point loss at cross-town rival Portland State.
"We came fresh off a preseason trip to the Bahamas, where he played very well," Holton said.
"So we started the season almost in mid-season form already. We get those wins over New Mexico and Nevada and we really began to think this was going to be our breakout season. Then we took that trip to Cameron Indoor. I still don't think we've fully recovered."
And while it's easy to overstate the impact of one loss on a team's psyche, there may be some truth in Portland's case.
Devoid of any real post threat, the Pilots seemed to be playing over their heads in the early going, boosted by the preseason playing time and early confidence gained by upsetting power conference teams.
The loss in Durham seemed to bring Portland back to earth and self-doubt began to set in.
"We seemed ready," Holton said, "But the loss really deflated us. We lost to Weber State afterward, because I think we were still trying to recover. But, you know, in our thought process I think it's clear we're not far off from taking the next step, which is a winning season."
To that end, the Pilots have the parts to at least be competitive in the West Coast Conference.