What: Southern Utah (3-8) at Portland State (6-4)
Where: Stott Center (1,500), Portland, Ore.
When: Thursday, 7:05 p.m.
Internet: Live Video Stream at www.WatchBigSky.com; Live Audio Stream at www.GoViks.com (Tom Hewitt, play by play).
Holiday season marks a joyful time for exchanging gifts.
For Portland State, it has likewise been a time for getting healthy.
Nine days after walloping Walla Walla by 42 points at home in spite of three starters (Bryce White, Tiegbe Bamba and Braxton Tucker) missing the game because of injuries, the Vikings open Big Sky Conference play on New Year’s Day with a home contest against struggling Southern Utah.
Nagging injuries hampered Portland State throughout he nonconference schedule as the Vikings went 6-4 (first winning nonconference record since 2010-11), winning all four home games and going 2-4 on the road, but PSU are now fully healthy as the Thunderbirds prepare to travel to the Rose City.
Viking coach Tyler Geving has utilized seven different starting lineups in PSU’s first 10 games as nine different players have started games. None has started all 10 games. In fact, just four players appeared in all 10 contests during the non-conference schedule.
“The most frustrating thing over the last two or three weeks has been dealing with the injuries and not having everybody available,” Geving told Viking Tales Tuesday. “We haven’t had a lot of continuity. We played Walla Walla at the right time. Then we got three days off and came back and now we have everybody healthy. The main thing was getting back and having some good practices and getting our continuity back and getting guys into shape.”
The injured players set to return to game action have spent the last five days since Portland State returned from Christmas break working on improving their conditioning and timing.
“I told the guys that we can’t be hurt anymore and we can’t be sick,” Geving said. “If you’re sore, you just have to play through it. That’s the way it is. We can’t afford to have guys sitting out anymore.”
Unlike the Power 5 conferences, the Big Sky is traditionally a “one-bid” league in terms of the NCAA Tournament in March, but only eight of the 12 conference teams qualify for the conference tourney (scheduled for March 12-14 at the home of the No. 1 seed), heightening the importance of every conference matchup between now and the end of the regular season in early March.
Literally, every Big Sky team hits the reset button and starts over at 0-0.
“The biggest thing is making sure you get into the Big Sky Tournament,” Geving said. “That’s the first goal. So, every conference game is important from that standpoint. You have to give yourself a chance to get into the (Big Sky) tournament in March. After that, anything can happen in three days in a one-bid league.”
Thursday’s game against SUU marks only the second time in school history PSY has played on New Year’s Day. The previous occasion came a decade ago.
Four of the top six 3-point shooters in the Big Sky will be at the Stott Center on New Year’s Day, including SUU freshman guard James McGee (10.2 ppg), who shoots a Big Sky best 57.1 percent (28-49) from beyond the arc. McGee has attempted just eight 2-pointers this season.
Portland State guard DaShaun Wiggins is third in the Big Sky from three-point range (51.4 percent), followed by teammate Tim Douglas (47.2 pct) in fifth and SUU’s A.J. Hess (team-leading 12.7 ppg) in sixth (45.5 pct).
Hess is also one of the best free throw shooters in the Big Sky, connecting on 90 percent of his charity tosses during the non-conference slate.
The Thunderbirds average 67.6 points and 7.2 3-point field goals made per game, connecting on 43.4 percent of their shots, sixth-best in the Big Sky.
“They play a lot of guys,” Geving said. “So, we have to play their personnel well. They are extremely physical and rebound the basketball well.”
With McGee and Hess showing the way, SUU is proficient shooting the basketball. But the Thunderbirds surrender points as quickly as they score them, currently ranking last in the Big Sky in scoring defense (75.1 ppg) and 3-point percentage defense (39.4 pct).
After hosting SUU on New Year’s Day, the Vikings square off with Northern Arizona (5-8) on Saturday at 7:05 p.m. PT. The Lumberjacks beat Fresno State at home and nipped St. Mary’s of the West Coast Conference on the road, 73-71.
“Being 6-4 is pretty good,” Geving said. “We took care of our home games. Sure, two of them were non-Division I, but we also played at USC, at Oregon, at San Francisco and at Portland. Northridge had everybody back too. The only thing I wasn’t happy with is how we lost a few of those games.
“But overall, if you had told me before the season we would be 6-4 going into league play, I would have taken it and said, ‘Heck, yeah.’” I was worried about being 4-6 or 5-5 at best.”
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
G – DaShaun Wiggins (Sr.)(16.3)
G – Gary Winston (Sr.)(9.6)
F – Collin Spickerman (Jr.)(3.0)
F – Tiegbe Bamba (Sr.)(10.9)
F – Braxton Tucker (So.)(10.1)
Points Per Game: DaShaun Wiggins (16.3)
Total Points: DaShaun Wiggins (163)
Minutes: Gary Winston (292)
Field Goals Made: DaShaun Wiggins (49)
Field Goals Attempted: DaShaun Wiggins (109)
Field Goal Pct: Tiegbe Bamba (.534)
3-Point Field Goals Made: DaShaun Wiggins (19)
3-Point Field Goals Attempted: Gary Winston (38)
Free Throws Made: DaShaun Wiggins (46)
Free Throws Attempted: DaShaun Wiggins (69)
Total Rebounds: Braxton Tucker (44)
Offensive Rebounds: Braxton Tucker (22)
Defensive Rebounds: DaShaun Wiggins (32)
Assists: Gary Winston (29)
Turnovers: DaShaun Wiggins (25)
Blocks: Collin Spickerman (20)
Steals: DaShaun Wiggins (17)
Jan. 1 SOUTHERN UTAH, 7:05 p.m
Jan. 3 NORTHERN ARIZONA, 7:05 p.m.
Jan. 8 at Northern Colorado, 6 p.m.
Jan. 10 at North Dakota, noon
Jan. 15 EASTERN WASHINGTON, 7:05 p.m.
(All Times Pacific)
LAST FIVE RESULTS
Dec. 3 at Portland, L 83-71
Dec. 6 at UC Riverside, L 88-62
Dec. 13 CAL STATE BAKERSFIELD, W 65-59
Dec. 18 at San Francisco, L 77-40
Dec. 22 WALLA WALLA, W 94-52
— The return of Idaho has resulted in the Big Sky schedule being reduced from 20 to 18 teams. Each team will play an unbalanced schedule, facing seven teams twice and four teams once. “It definitely makes the league a little more competitive, adding a quality team like (Idaho),” Geving said.
— PSU has won three straight games over Southern Utah, including both Big Sky matchups in Portland since SUU joined the league in 2012-13. PSU leads the all-time series, 4-1.
— Vikings center Collin Spickerman ranks No. 2 in the Big Sky in blocked shots per game (2.0). He has started the last five games, blocking 13 shots.
— SUU, now in its third year as a member of the Big Sky Conference, finished 2-27 last season, 1-19 in Big Sky play. All five Thunderbird starters and eight letterwinners return from that team. SUU already has one more win than a year ago.
— Portland State is 52-23 at home in six seasons under Geving. So far this season, PSU averages 83.2 points with a 51.5 shooting percentage at Stott Center.
— Overall, Portland State is last in the Big Sky in rebounding margin (minus-6.3), but has outrebounded its first four opponents at him by 2.3 per game.
— Sacramento State senior guard Dylan Garrity has been selected as the Big Sky Conference Player of the Week after leading the Hornets to a road win over Utah Valley.
— The Big Sky is No. 23 in conference RPI. Portland State is No. 164 in team RPI, second highest in the Big Sky behind Eastern Washington (No. 48).
BIG SKY SCHEDULE (Thur. Jan. 1)
North Dakota at Montana State, 1:05 p.m.
Weber State at Eastern Washington, 2:05 p.m.
Idaho State at Idaho, 7:05 p.m.
Northern Arizona at Sacramento State, 7:05 p.m.
Southern Utah at Portland State, 7:05 p.m.
Northern Colorado at Montana, 7:05 p.m.