After four years of losing records and little attention, the first-place men’s basketball team is garnering attention inside and outside of the South Park Blocks.
The 11-4 Vikings have won seven straight games and look to tie the all-time school winning streak of eight games tomorrow night in Cheney, Wash., against the Eastern Washington University Eagles.
In addition to the thrill of victory, winning has resulted in increased media coverage, an influx of Portland State fans to the previously moribund Stott Center and optimism for the future.
Since he took over a 12-16 Vikings squad three years ago, head coach Heath Schroyer has rebuilt the team with an emphasis on defense, hustle and toughness and is enjoying the payoff after two losing seasons.
"We’re making strides in the program," he said. "When I got here three years ago I talked about the [rebuilding] process and what it would be and it’s starting to come to fruition."
On the court the program’s evolution is obvious. A solid recruiting class last year and the development of this year’s senior class have PSU playing an exciting brand of basketball that has been missing at the Stott Center the last few years. Known for their defense in the past, this year PSU is leading the conference in scoring thanks to an assortment of dunks, lay-ups and high percentage shots that have the Vikings ranked 10th of all 300-plus Division 1 teams in field goal percentage.
Bubba Jones, a longtime PSU fan and a regular at home games, thinks the team is headed in the right direction. "This has definitely been Schroyer’s best year," he said. "Right now they’re looking really good."
Off the court the program’s evolution is more complex. Despite a full remodel before the season, last year the Stott Center remained a depressing venue where the student section reserved for PSU students was often filled with the opposing team’s fans. The Stott Center finished dead last in a recent Big Sky Conference survey asking fans which court gave its team the best home court advantage.
While it will never be as raucous as Mac Court in Eugene, an influx of PSU fans and students has improved the atmosphere at home games.
"There’s obviously more excitement," Schroyer said. "People now are starting to come out. It’s fun."
With a student body of over 23,000, selling out a gym with a maximum capacity of 1500 might seem like a no-brainer, but selling sports to PSU’s non-traditional student body and the Blazers-crazy Portland fan base has never been a sure thing.
Josh Rebholz, the assistant director of development for the athletic department and the man in charge of selling tickets, thinks things may be changing. He has noticed a "buzz" surrounding the team’s play and says demand is on the rise. "People are talking about how good we seem to be."
For the first three conference games PSU is averaging only 52 more fans per game than last year, but Rebholz and others downplay the straight comparison He pointed out that this year’s crowds have been composed of more PSU fans and less visitors’ fans – a trend that bodes well for the future.
Winning has also brought more mainstream media coverage. At a recent practice, team trainer Jim Wallis jokingly asked, "What are you guys doing here?" upon seeing reporters from The Oregonian, the Portland Tribune and the Vanguard waiting to get quotes from the team. In addition Fox Sports Net is working on two pieces about the team and local TV stations are showing more PSU highlights and scores. For many schools the amount of coverage PSU gets would be the sign of a problem, but at PSU it can only be seen as progress.
Athletic Director Tom Burman is excited by both the on and off court progress and confident that the program can continue the winning necessary to sustain it.
"We can win a conference title and get to the tournament," he said adding that doing so within three to four years seemed reasonable. "I believe we can do it and we should do it.
"I want to see if the community will jump on the bandwagon and put us in a position where we can build a great basketball program like Gonzaga did 12-13 years ago," Burman said. "Now they’re playing in a brand new arena and beating great programs on the road and playing in front of sold out crowds. That’s the dream."
With four of the team’s leading scorers graduating after this year, even the best case scenario of this year’s team romping through the Big Sky, winning the conference tournament and playing in March Madness wouldn’t guarantee that Burman’s dream becomes a reality, but it would be a giant step for a program that has struggled to crawl.
Regardless of what happens down the road, players and coaches are enjoying the first winning season any of them have experienced at PSU.
"I really like this team," Schroyer said, letting his tough guy image down for a minute. "The favorite part of my day is going to weights with them and going on the floor every day. For me its fun because I just enjoy being around this team a lot."
When asked about the winning streak and the crowd after a recent home win, team captain and league MVP candidate Seamus Boxley summed up the progress made this year, saying, "This is why I came here. This is everything that I knew this program could do."