The Portland State Vikings are a win away from winning the Big Sky regular season title and hosting the Big Sky Conference Tournament.
Longtime Viking fans may need to take a second to let that seep in.
A win Thursday night at Montana State or Saturday night at Montana would clinch the best conference record for the Viks and ensure PSU hosts the conference tournament at Memorial Coliseum March 8-9. Theoretically, the Vikings could lose both games and still host the tournament but taking the back door to glory wouldn’t be a fitting path for a team that has fought so hard to bring respectability and wins to a program in dire need of both.
Last April, days after PSU finished an underwhelming 11-18 campaign that left them out of the conference tournament and dead last in the Big Sky for the second consecutive year, I wrote an article suggesting that this year might be the Vikings’ year to make it to March Madness ("Viking March Madness in ’05 or just plain madness?" 4-2-04).
I cited a bunch of statistics about the players we had returning, the importance of having played a year together, how weak the conference is and a bunch of other brilliant things. I thought there was a good chance PSU could take advantage of the Big Sky and backdoor its way into the NCAA tournament, but to be honest, I never imagined the Viks doing it the classy way they have.
In addition to the improvement one would expect from a team loaded with seniors and returning players, there are numerous other reasons for the team’s success. Jake Schroeder’s soft touch, Will Funn’s emergence as one of the country’s top point guards, Scott Morrison’s rapid development, Seamus Boxley’s ability to avoid foul trouble – you could cite any of those as a key to the Viks’ success and you would be right.
The first is the incredible team chemistry. Not only do the players and coaches get along, they seem to genuinely enjoy spending time together. That’s a good thing when 7:30 a.m. daily weightlifting sessions are mandatory on top of daily practices, long road trips and unending study halls.
Last year’s team was the classic collection of individuals looking for stats and struggling to adapt to a new system. A starting lineup of three transfers and two players coming off medical redshirts never figured out how to play together to maximize their collective talent.
This year, despite several new faces, everyone is on the same page. The seniors bought into Coach Schroyer’s regime and, by doing what is asked of them, have convinced the new and younger players to do likewise. Practices are lively and vocal. The team is full of jokesters who make sure that everybody has a nickname and a joke to laugh about.
Everybody always wants to win, but when you’re having fun it’s a lot easier than when you’re not. This is especially true with a demanding system and coach like PSU’s. Leading us to the second reason for the Vikings’ success: head coach Heath Schroyer’s maturation.
Anyone who attended a PSU game in Schroyer’s first year is probably just glad the guy is still alive. Thanks to banging his hands on the Stott Center floor, yelling at the top of his lungs and holding his breath in frustration/anger (it was all the same back then), the over/under on "years until Schroyer’s first heart attack" hovered between one and one-and-a-half.
Luckily, he learned to tone it down and harness those emotions for when they’re really needed. He’ll still turn beet-red every once in a while and he definitely throws in a floor pound from time to time, but now he’s earning attention for the excellent coach he is. His defensive schemes are admired throughout the Big Sky and he has shown a knack for recruiting to the Park Blocks. His first recruiting class (Blake Walker, Will Funn, Sheu Oduniyi) is largely responsible for making the Viks the most improved team in the Big Sky for two consecutive years, and having gotten University of Washington big man Anthony Washington to transfer will pay big dividends for next year’s team.
PSU wisely signed Schroyer to a contract extension late last year, but with his current success he has to be the top name on many athletic directors’ lists should they need a new coach.
Regardless, now is not the time to worry about those sorts of things. The Vikings are on the verge of their first conference tournament in three years and come March 8, they will be looking for their first postseason win in six years, and quite possibly their first trip to the Big Dance in history.
Who would have believed that the only team in Oregon with a legitimate shot at making March Madness would be the humble crew that calls the Stott Center home?
Other than me, I mean.