Why Can the University of Portland Hang With Top College Basketball Teams?

Robert Temprano '25

The University of Portland is a small Division I basketball school, filled with solid shooters and fundamentally sound players. However, with the talent that they have, they should not be able to play with, compete, or even as far as win against top college basketball teams like Michigan State, North Carolina, and Villanova. All of these games have been quite close, with Portland even squeezing out a win against Villanova. Some might say that these games were flukes, but I would disagree. Here’s why.

Let’s start with the Portland versus North Carolina game. Now obviously North Carolina has had an underwhelming start to the season to say the least, but with the talent they have, they are a no doubt tournament team who could definitely surprise some people. Teams like North Carolina like to speed up the pace of the game and try to beat teams with their athleticism and high speed scoring. Portland counters this by using lots of the shot clock and running set plays. A play that they constantly use is the double screen. The double screen takes one defender clearly off the ball, while creating an opening in the lane. The defenders have two choices at this point, the defender on the wing could help in the lane or the defender in the corner could help fill the lane as the picture shows. Both options open up an open 3. They run this play over and over again. 

Not only does Portland run a double on ball screen, but they also run off ball screens when the defense starts to figure things out. These screens open up wide open 3s for their wing players. For teams like Portland, this strategy works perfectly, knowing that 9/12 players on Portland shoot over 35% from 3, while 4/12 shoot 50% or more. This shooting mixed with screens that create open 3s is the perfect offense for a team like Portland. 

Portland is also top 25 in points per game, 3 point percentage, 3 pointers made per game, free throw attempts per game, and free throw percentage. These statistics add up, especially against bigger and more athletic teams. While they do not lead many statlines defensively, they still have a great defensive scheme. Every starter except for their point guard, Milke Meadows, is 6’7” or above. This lets them switch on and off screens easily, frustrating the offense and making their opponent play out of their comfort zone. When opposing teams get into a set offense, Portland plays both a 2-3 zone and a man-to-man defense with constant switching.

It’s fascinating that a school as small as Portland can stay with larger, high pace, more athletic teams by using such simple ideas to the best of their abilities whether it is on or off ball screens, double screens, defensive switching, or even the simple defensive strategies of the 2-3 zone or man-to-man defense. In Portland’s near future, they play Oregon on Dec. 17 and BYU on New Year’s Eve. These are both very winnable games for Portland that will look good on their resume for the NCAA tournament. Keep an eye out for these upcoming games and do not be surprised if you see Portland on your brackets come March.