Portland State opens up the 2008-2009 basketball season at Rice. The Owls hired former Cal coach Ben Braun in the off season with the hopes he could turn around a team that went 3-27 last year and 0-16 in conference. Based on his amazing recruiting haul for next year (Be glad they’re not playing next year!), it appears they are headed back in the right direction. However, Braun isn’t expecting much improvement in the win-loss column this season with 4 upperclassmen returning. The one strength the Owls should bring to the floor is a defensive intensity that exceeds that brought on a nightly basis in the Big Sky.

The Vikings on the other hand, appear to have a lot to look forward to this year even with the losses of Deonte Huff and Scott Morrison with the return of Big Sky MVP Jeremiah Dominguez. The Vikings also return two other probable starters in shooting guard Andre Murray and forward Kyle Coston. The Vikings will also break in talented University of Washington transfer Phil Nelson, who scored a flashy 19 points in 23 minutes in the Viks’ exhibition against Western Oregon. Former WAC freshman of the year Dominic Waters should be the first guard off the bench, and University of Portland transfer Jamie Jones will likely start at center to begin the year. PSU’s biggest weakness may be free throw shooting, which has plagued them off and on in recent years. The loss of Morrison and fellow big man JR Moore may also hurt the Vikings on the inside given recruit Jason Conrad’s decision not to enroll at PSU.

Match-Ups
Center
PSU: Jamie Jones Rice: Trey Stanton

The transfer from the US Naval Academy should be an improvement for the Owls at center, although he may not be the big-bodied presence they need. He provides not only the shot-blocking and rebounding that one would expect from a center, but also a 3 point stroke that should stretch defenses all year. The Vikings might match him up with Coston on defense based on his similar body type. Whether or not Stanton is effective, the Owls will have a talented big man on the floor, because 6th man Suleiman Braimoh has the ability to score and rebound too. If Stanton can lock up Jones on defense, it will go a long way towards keeping this one close for the Owls. However, based on Jones’ history, I wouldn’t bet on that happening. In action at the University of Portland, Jones averaged 10 points and 7 boards, and Viking fans will be pleased to see that unlike past big men, he actually has moves around the basket. I’ll take Jones in this match-up with experience winning out, although I think Julius Thomas’ relentless effort will go a long way in helping wear down the Owls’ centers.
Advantage: Vikings

Power Forward
PSU: Kyle Coston Rice: Aleks Perka

Perka started the last three games for the Owls last season, so he gets the nod here. He was fairly effective when he saw extended time, but will need to exceed the 3.6 points and 2.1 boards per game he got last season if Rice is going to compete on a nightly basis. Coston really improved as the season went on last year, averaging 7.6 points in conference. The Vikings are hoping he can continue to develop into the starting role that he moved into last year. The departure of Alex Tiefenthaler should create more minutes for both Coston and Tyrell Mara. PSU needs their 3 point shooting forwards to stretch the defense so that slashers like Wendell Wright, Andre Murray, and Phil Nelson can get some room for their mid-range games. Rice has talented freshmen Emerson Herndon and Lucas Kuipers to come off the bench here, which should help keep the numbers close.
Advantage: Push

Small Forward
PSU: Phil Nelson Rice: Lawrence Gorham

Outside of point guard, this should be the most exciting match-up, and the one that produces the most points. Gorham, a junior had two 20 point games last year and averaged 8.5 points and 4 boards per game. If he can continue his progress, and help Foster on the scoreboard, it would greatly improve the Owls’ chances. Phil Nelson comes to PSU after starting 9 games as a freshman at the University of Washington, and it comes to no one’s surprise that there are very high expectations. With size, unlimited range, and highlight-reel dunking ability, Nelson is a player that could end up in the NBA in the not-so-distant future. The questions surrounding him are whether or not he can stay healthy, and if he can limit bad shots. If he can do these things, he may not be around long.
Advantage: Vikings

Shooting Guard
PSU: Andre Murray Rice: Cory Pflieger

Pflieger was third in Conference USA in 3 point shooting as a sophomore, averaging 6 points and 2 rebounds per contest. He sat out last season with a medical redshirt after going down with an ankle injury in the fifth game of the season. Rodney Foster may see some minutes at the two if one of the other point guards (Beasley, Frizzelle, Schwarze) proves effective. Murray brings luck to the Vikings, who won 18 out of his 22 starts after their dreadful start. He brings a strong all around game, with a good outside shot and a rebounding ability that exceeds his size. Though he probably won’t be looked on to score as much this season, Murray will be asked to bring his experience and intensity. Numbers wise, this should be close, even though Murray is the more talented of the two.
Advantage: Push

Point Guard
PSU: Jeremiah Dominguez Rice: Rodney Foster

The leading scorer and assist man for the Owls at 11 points and 3 assists per game, Foster shouldered the load for a team that simply wasn’t good. Ben Braun plans to take some of the load off of Foster by playing a larger rotation. The hope is that he won’t go down with a major injury like he did when he broke his hand in practice during the last week of the season last year. Foster will have a significant height advantage in this match-up, but the question is whether or not he can capitalize. Dominguez did a great job on larger opponents last year, utilizing his superior speed and hands to out-duel opponents. Whether or not he can duplicate last season’s numbers depend on the production of team mates. As you might recall, he usually played the role of tough defender and passer last season until it became evident the team would need his scoring output. Foster may outscore Dominguez, especially if Nelson and Jones can be effective on the offensive end, but the numbers should balance out by the time this one is over unless one of them gets into foul trouble.
Advantage: Push

Bench
Bryan Beasley, Texas’ former top-ranked point guard transferred to Rice after sitting out a year as a redshirt at Texas A&M. Last year, he transitioned into the lineup, starting 20 games, and averaging 3 points. Ben Braun has to hope that Beasley will continue to progress and take some pressure off of Foster. Other guys off the bench who might have an impact include Suleiman Braimoh, Emerson Herndon, and Lucas Kuipers. PSU should have a much better bench than they did last year. Although they lost Dupree Lucas and JR Moore, the Vikings gain Dominic Waters, a guy who can play at either guard spot; Donatas Visockis, a big man who will easily fill Moore’s role, and perhaps a great deal more; and Wendell Wright, a strong rebounding freshman wing. Those guys are added to the group that includes Tyrell Mara, Mickey Polis, and Julius Thomas. Even if they weren’t a more talented group, the Vikings clearly have experience and depth that the Owls don’t, and that should allow their starters to get the rest they need to be effective.
Advantage: Vikings

Prediction
Though the Owls play in a conference that has more talent than the Big Sky top-to-bottom, they held a minimal share of that talent, comprised mostly by Foster. If Rice is going to win some more games this year, and particularly this home opener, they will need everything he can give them and then some. The energy surrounding the reopening of Tudor Fieldhouse may keep this one close most of the way, but if the Vikings play up to their potential they’re just too talented for the current Rice squad.
PSU 74 Rice 62