On the roller-coaster ride that has been this year’s Portland State men’s basketball season, the team heads into the final weeks of the campaign once again on the upswing. Riding a pair of confidence-boosting wins over Big Sky opponents to the cusp of a berth in the conference tournament, a large portion of the Vikings’ success can be traced to the play of this year’s freshman class.
The impetus for the Vikings’ late season surge has been the play of a trio of freshmen athletes. Guards Troy DeVries and Aaron Fitzgerald and forward Billy Feeney have contributed in numerous ways throughout the season They join a pair of redshirt freshmen, forward Jeff Eischen and guard John Olinger, to form a promising nucleus of talent for the future of Viking basketball.
“I’ve never had such a great freshman class before,” head coach Joel Sobotka said. “These are guys that take care of their responsibilities on and off the floor.”
DeVries, Fitzgerald and Feeney are at or near the top in every major statistical category for freshmen in the Big Sky, and each brings something different to the table for the Vikings.
Fitzgerald, a capable scorer who averaged 32.0 points per game in his senior year at Washington’s Kennedy High School, has logged the most minutes of the trio, starting 20 of the 25 games in which he has played. The 6-foot-2, 185 pound guard is averaging 11.0 points per game this year and has cut down on his turnovers in recent weeks as his assist totals have increased. In the Vikings’ 91-78 victory over Idaho State last week, Fitzgerald scored six points and had seven assists while only turning the ball over twice in 18 minutes of efficient play.
“Aaron’s played well for us this season,” Sobotka said. “There have been times when he’s been inconsistent, which is normal for a freshman player getting good minutes at this level, but he’s intent on improving.”
Feeney had a coming out party in one of the Vikings’ more impressive wins, grabbing five rebounds and scoring a team-high 20 points in a 79-69 win over PAC-10 opponent Arizona State.
“Billy is so skilled, and we saw after the Arizona State game that he could do some things for us,” Sobotka said.
Feeney has averaged 8.2 points and 3.7 rebounds per game this year, leading the team in those categories multiple times throughout the season. At 6-foot-9 and 190 pounds, he knows the key to his continued improvement can be found at the dinner table.
“I need to put on some weight. I eat but I can’t seem to gain weight. I’m going to hit the weight room this summer when I head back home,” Feeney said, smiling while Fitzgerald elbowed him in the ribs. Home for Feeney is Louisville, Colo.
DeVries has proven the biggest surprise in the Vikings’ late season success, scoring 16 points in an 83-77 win over Weber State and 18 in the victory over Idaho State. Averaging 4.6 points per game this year, DeVries is beginning to garner some starts late in the season.
Eischen played in two games before being diagnosed with an irregular heart rhythm early in the year. The 6-foot-8, 220 pound forward averaged a double-double in points and rebounds his senior year at Hillsboro High School and is a player coach Sobotka wishes he could use down the stretch.
“Jeff was doing some good things for us when he was unable to continue because of his condition,” Sobotka said. “With his size, defense and rebounding, there have been times this season when I definitely wished he could be out their playing. He’ll take a medical redshirt and be back competing next year.”
Olinger walked on the team and has proven an invaluable asset for Sobotka for his work habits and intensity in practice sessions. The 6-foot-1, 175 pound guard also has a knack for scoring the ball, which he did to the tune of 21.3 points per game at the 2000-2001 Oregon 4A basketball tournament. Olinger led all scorers in the tournament and paced South Salem to a fourth-place finish.
“John is a perfect walk-on for his ability to play multiple positions in practice,” Sobotka said. “He’ll redshirt this year and see minutes for this team down the road.”
Olinger and Fizgerald have been known to go at it pretty hard in practice.
“Me and Fitz have some good battles,” Olinger said. “I try to get pretty fired up and do the things I can to improve and make these guys better players.”
Off the court, the players spend a lot of time together, in study halls and with living arrangements.
“We live in the same building so we see each other all the time,” Olinger, who rooms with Eischen said. “We’ve got a pretty close team.”
Surprisingly, the group hasn’t been subject to the battery of menial chores usually delegated to a squad’s fledgling players.
“We’ve had to clean up the locker room, carry bags at the airport,” DeVries said. “Nothing too bad.”
The players know that much work lies ahead.
“I think I can improve my decision-making,” Fitzgerald said. “I started out pretty bad with turnovers this year but the game is coming to me.”
“Physically we all need to get bigger,” Eischen added. “Get in the weight room and get stronger.”
The weeks directly following the conclusion of the season are crucial to the players’ development.
“We expect the greatest amount of growth for players between their first and second years, both mentally and physically. That starts with the eight weeks after the season is done. These kids have been able to see how physical it is up here, I mean, they had to get in there and bang with the Stanfords, and now they know what they need to do to get better,” Sobotka said.
With DeVries, Fitzgerald and Feeney combining to score 23.8 points per game, roughly one-third of the team’s total offense, any success the Vikings have in the month of March this year will undoubtedly be a direct result of their play. Add Eischen, Olinger and a year of seasoning to that mix and the future of Viking basketball looks bright indeed.