After losing six seniors following a record-breaking 19-9 season that saw the Vikings host the Big Sky tournament, expectations were relatively subdued at the start of the 2005-06 men’s basketball campaign. However, the Vikings battled to a 7-6 non-conference record under first-year head coach Ken Bone and had won five games in a row heading into conference play last week.
Too bad non-conference play had to end, because the Vikings got a big wake-up call with losses to Northern Arizona and Sacramento State over the weekend by a combined 25 points.
The Viks got off to a bad start with a 76-60 setback against one of the Big Sky’s perennially awful teams, the Sacramento State Hornets. Days later Portland State lost to Northern Arizona 77-86.
Obviously this isn’t the start to conference play Bone and his players imagined when they were riding the high of that five-game win streak, including a gutsy victory at Mac Court in Eugene over the struggling Ducks on Dec. 27.
Part of the problem is that besides JC-transfer guard Juma Kamara, the Vikings lack players with the athleticism and size to create shots and scoring opportunities for themselves. Senior guard Jake Schroeder is a prolific shooter but he is too slow. JC-transfer Ryan Sommer can score but he is a generous 5-foot-11 and can be volatile on the court. Senior forward Tyler Hollist has been effective as an energy man but is inconsistent.
No Viking players besides Kamara and sophomore center Scott Morrison shoot over 50 percent and every player who logs meaningful minutes shoots under 45 percent. Portland State has 36 more turnovers than assists heading into the second week of conference play.
There are some justifications for the seemingly disappointing numbers. Early in the year the team was adjusting to Bone’s style and system and during the five-game win streak they showed dramatic improvement.
However during Saturday’s game against NAU it wasn’t shooting woes that saw the Vikings lose (they shot 52 percent and scored 77 points), it was the old problems of ball control and decision making, something the team has struggled with at times throughout the season.
Senior guard Josh Neeley turned the ball over six times starting in place of injured Ryan Sommer, who was tagged with a hamstring injury just eight minutes into Thursday’s loss to Sac State. Neeley had seven turnovers after taking over for Sommer against the Hornets.
With Sommer down with his injury, the Vikings must find someone to step up and take care of the ball while managing the offense. Josh Neeley is a good player. He defends ball handlers exceptionally well on and he has a nose for the ball off the boards, but he struggles when asked to bring the ball up the court.
This is the time of year when season’s are made or broken. “Gut check time” is what sports junkies and red-faced coaches call it. The Vikings are in a 0-2 conference hole and have exactly 12 games to get it together. Last year’s regular season championship team went 11-3 in Big Sky play.
The Vikings don’t need to go 11-1 over their last 12 games to get into the tournament this year. They won’t. But they need to find a way to start competing. With or without their starting point guard.