For junior forward Kyle Coston, this trip to the NCAA Tournament is much different than last year.
One year ago the Vikings were a first-time March Madness participant and a lowly No. 16 seed that was matched up with national powerhouse and No. 1 seed Kansas. And in Omaha, Neb., Portland State was also in close proximity to Lawrence, Kan., where the eventual national champion Jayhawks call home, bringing the Vikings additional media attention and scrutiny from a host of reporters.
Portland State was under the microscope for a litany of reasons. But that is not the same this year in Boise.
Instead of fighting through crowds of TV reporters, radio hosts and print journalists just to speak with one of the team’s players or head coach Ken Bone, there were only a few media members in the Vikings’ locker room before practice Thursday.
And while Portland State is still facing off against a program with a proud NCAA Tournament tradition in Xavier, who has made it to the Big Dance eight of the last nine years, the Musketeers are simply not the same caliber squad as Kansas.
“We’re not seeing big lights, we’re not seeing Kansas–we’re seeing Xavier. And we feel like we have a good chance,” Coston said. “We’re not just a 16 seed.”
Aside from everything else, the biggest difference between Portland State’s NCAA Tournament appearances is the fact that as a No. 13 seed the Vikings truly do have a chance, as No. 13 seeds are 20-76 since 1985 while a No. 16 seed has never knocked off a top-seeded squad in the opening round.
Coston said the believability factor is certainly a major change from last season, mainly because Xavier actually has weaknesses that the Vikings might be able to exploit. This is something that the coaches have been harping on over the last week and a half, Coston said, as Bone as his staff have searched for ways to manipulate the Musketeers on both the offensive and defensive ends.
“It was fun just to get here last year. But, like the American dream, you always want more,” Coston said.
Like Coston, sophomore forward Phil Nelson was looking loose as usual in the Vikings’ locker room just minutes before practice on Thursday. Listening to music and hanging out on a sofa with his teammates, Nelson didn’t appear to have a worry in the world. And after talking to him it is clear that is actually the case.
“We’re feeling alright,” Nelson said with a slight smile. “We’re excited to be here, but at the same time it’s just another game.”
Nelson knows Xavier will be a challenge for the Vikings, as he specifically cited the team’s length and ability to rebound the ball as strengths, but the Keizer, Ore., native continued to revert back to the Musketeers’ proficiency at grabbing boards.
Above all, Nelson and Coston said the Portland State coaching staff has made it absolutely clear that if the Vikings hope to pull off an upset they must limit Xavier to only one opportunity on the offensive end, making snatching defensive rebounds crucial.
“Limiting them to one shot will be key,” Nelson said. “That’s how the game will end up.”
Another key for Portland State will be pushing the ball up court and dictating the tempo to ensure it remains fast-paced throughout the 40-minute ordeal. With excellent size and strength, Coston compares Xavier to a team the Vikings nearly knocked off on the road this season: Washington.
“They are like a UW–athletic and long,” Coston said. “And they play in a tougher league than the Big Sky.”
However, despite the perceived shortcomings of Big Sky competition, Coston believes the Vikings have been tested enough times this season to put forth a valiant effort against Xavier. Coston is high on the Vikings non-conference schedule–headlined by matchups with Gonzaga, Washington and Baylor–and thinks the adversity the Vikings endured in those games will benefit them substantially when they walk on the floor in a few hours.
“Our preseason schedule was really designed for us to get to the tournament and play a team like this,” Coston said.