The I-5 Corridor's guide to the NCAA Tournament's Portland regional
Here's what you need to know about one of the largest sporting events held in this city in years.
PORTLAND — After scoring 11 points in 36 minutes to lead Boise State past San Diego State in the Mountain West championship game on Saturday, Broncos forward Abu Kigab took a moment to reflect on the journey.
“Guys keep fighting,” said the 6-foot-7 forward. “Everybody works. I can’t say enough about these guys. The unity. The commitment. The determination and relentlessness to keep going when things aren’t going well — it’s unbelievable.”
Kigab’s pursuit of this moment is pretty unbelievable, too.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Kigab was once a struggling freshman on one of Dana Altman’s worst Oregon teams.
It was the year after the Final Four and Kigab was just one of several who weren’t ready to fill the shoes of a mostly-departed roster. He averaged 1.6 points that season, then transferred to Boise State midway through the next. By and large, his Oregon career was a blip.
But when looking over the players and teams coming to Portland this week for the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, I thought of Kigab and a moment after a loss against USC in January of 2018. Kigab played just four minutes, missed his only shot and checked out after two quick fouls. The Ducks lost 75-70, and after interviews were done and the fans went home, I saw Kigab pull a manager out of the tunnel to get some shots up. He hit a few from the foul line, then extended out to 3-point range. It wasn’t anything drastic, but it was enough to work up a sweat.
Nobody else was doing it.
I can’t imagine how many more of those sessions it took to get from there to where he is now, leading the No. 8-seed Broncos against No. 9 Memphis Thursday at the Moda Center. Boise State is 27-7, its No. 23 ranking in the AP poll is the highest in team history and Kigab’s slow-burn of a success story is one of my favorite things to come from this week’s slate of games in the Rose City.
Here are a few other things I’ve circled:
Portland lands No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga. It’s a nice draw for a city hosting the tournament for the first time since 2015. The Zags aren’t just good — they’re a semi-local team with three Oregonians on the roster. That’ll help fill some of the seats for the Thursday session, which you can still get in on for around $30 bucks.
But real Portland basketball fans know that the sneaky-best time to see the Zags on a discount are at UP games on the bluff. I live just a few blocks away from the University of Portland campus, and for most of the year it’s a sleepy hideaway on the edge of town seemingly tucked away from most sports coverage. But every now and then Gonzaga offers a quick reminder of Portland’s status as a Division I university, when Willamette Boulevard has the bustle that only a top-10 team can bring.
The Pilots played at Gonzaga this year, so it’s nice to see Mark Few’s team back in town at a larger venue than usual. The Bulldogs have three players with local ties on their roster: Matthew Lang (Jesuit), Ben Gregg (Clackamas) and Will Graves — the son of Oregon women’s basketball coach Kelly Graves. Unfortunately, the Ducks are traveling for their first-round matchup against Belmont in the women’s field, so father most likely won’t get to watch son compete so close to home.
Gonzaga’s opponent, No. 16-seed Georgia State, doesn’t stand a great chance. Only once in history has a No. 16 beaten a No. 1.
However, if Georgia State is somehow able to perform a miracle, I sure hope 5-foot-10 guard Justin Roberts is at the center of it. Roberts grew up in Indiana playing pickup games against kids two-to-three years older and always taller than him. The Panthers have won 10 consecutive games, with Roberts tallying 9 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in Saturday’s Sun Belt tournament win over Louisiana-Lafayette.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity,” Roberts said of Gonzaga. “I’m used to playing guys like that. We’re not scared or anything, just looking forward to the opportunity.”
If underdogs with no star power aren’t your thing, may I interest you in Memphis and head coach Penny Hardaway? The former NBA star hasn’t played a game in Rip City since he scored 6 points in a 120-102 Phoenix loss to the Blazers in 2003. He has coached one, however: Oregon beat Memphis 82-74 in 2019 at the Moda Center during Hardaway’s second season with the Tigers. In four years, the former guard is 84-42 and Memphis will play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.
The Pac-12 tournament final featuring Arizona and UCLA was great basketball with off-the-charts athleticism. It’s the most entertaining product the conference has put on in years. And while Arizona snuck by the Bruins 84-76, Portland ends up the benefactor with No. 4-seed UCLA coming up the I-5 to face No. 13 Akron.
It was clear throughout the course of the season that UCLA and Arizona were the class of the conference. And it’s still baffles me that Oregon — the last selection for the NIT Tournament on Sunday — beat the Bruins twice this year.
How does that happen?
What a disappointment of a season for the Ducks.
Akron fun fact: The Zips were named in 1927 when Margaret Hamlin, a student, suggested “Zippers” in a campus-wide contest to name the school’s mascot. Why Zippers? It was the name of a rubber overshoe manufactured by Akron’s B.F. Goodrich.
She won $10.
The mascot is a kangaroo, which is now used as some sort of Clippy-incarnate on the university’s website.
No. 5-seed Saint Mary’s awaits the winner of Wyoming/Indiana from the First Four play-in game, though we’re going to go ahead and put the collective momentum of this Substack behind the Cowboys.
Former Register-Guard Ducks beat writer Ryan Thorburn is in his first season covering Wyoming for the Casper-Star Tribune. And you know what? I wouldn’t mind getting a beer with him this week.
To mark your calendars:
No. 8 Boise State (27-7) vs. No. 9 Memphis (21-10), 10:45 a.m., TNT: Boise State
No. 1 Gonzaga (26-3) vs. No. 16 Georgia State (18-10), 1:15 p.m., TBA: Gonzaga
No. 5 Saint Mary’s (25-7) vs. No. 12 Wyoming (25-8)/Indiana (20-13), 4:20 p.m., TBS
No. 4 UCLA (25-7) vs. No. 13 Akron (24-9), 6:50 p.m., TBS
And if you’re coming in from out of town, I asked around:
The I-5 Corridor @thei5corridorPortland: The bars and restaurants you'd recommend to fans and media coming in for the NCAA Tournament this week are?
(Since this genius didn’t label the bar: Lombard House.)
Ok, now we close with some bad advice:
— Tyson Alger