Like Christmas, the PK80 celebrated the birth of a really cool guy on a date that’s not actually his birthday. Yet nobody seems to mind, and an epic weekend of basketball ensued. Born in February of 1938 in Portland Oregon, Phil Knight had himself an early-birthday celebration that Lavar Ball only dreams of. 16 teams, two brackets, 24 games. Again, like Christmas, there was much buildup to this event, as ESPN drooled over the potential matchups of premier college programs such as Carolina, Michigan State, Duke, Gonzaga, and Florida. With a Moda Center pass in hand, I drove a couple hours down I-5 to check out the first birthday party Mr. Knight has ever invited me to.
The first game of the tournament pitted Roy Williams and his Tar Heels against the hometown Portland Pilots. The guys in purple made it a competitive game, but the whole thing was overshadowed by moisture issues on the court. As players flirted with groin tears and racked up travelling calls by the dozens, it became apparent that PK80 had an issue on their hands. The floor sweepers appeared to have just rolled out of bed and took a lassiez-faire approach to defeating moisture. Ol’ Roy Williams was not having any of it, and soon employed a grad-assistant in khakis to get down on his hands and knees during every dead ball and wipe every drop off the brand-new court. What was causing such a slick surface? First thing that came to mind was that the entire arena felt like the frozen foods section at a grocery store. Or was it this new court that seemed to have about 20 coats of lacquer on it? Arena officials realized they had a true problem on their hands at halftime, as they doubled their sweeper count and provided some slightly-better mopping devices for their underaged laborers to push around. Carolina pulled away in the second-half and Roy Williams breathed a sigh of relief as his Heels escaped uninjured and he didn’t have to publicly chastise his grad-assistant turned private floor-wiper. The tournament carried on.
Over the course of the weekend I was able to witness 14 different teams in person at both venues and compile the following takeaways:
- New isn’t always better. The dangerous court has already been discussed, but there were also a handful of special PK80 branded shoes that came off players at a rate more than 10x that of their normal kicks. Jerseys were a color-rush-esque variety, hardly thrilling to see on the likes of Duke and Carolina. Tom Izzo wore a PK80 hooded sweatshirt for the entire Championship game and looked absurd. There was a lot of new Nike product sold in the concourses, but from a basketball perspective it would have been nice to stick with the classics.
- Florida Is For Real. Despite losing to Duke in one of the title games, Florida outplayed the Blue Devils for the first 38 minutes, when it appeared Coach K had finally imposed his will on the referees. Mike White is the best coach you’ve never heard of, and his Gators play an extremely fast-paced brand of basketball. Chiozza runs the point and is a complete flash with the ball in his hands. Coupled with Jalen Hudson, Egor Koulechov, and KeVaughn Allen, the Gators have the best four-headed monster of guards in the country. Hudson is my early favorite for SEC Player of the Year and can absolutely score the rock.
- Michigan State is Final Four ready. Miles Bridges is as-advertised, and they held Carolina to 45 points in their Championship game. Aside from Tom Izzo wearing a goofy-looking hooded sweatshirt the whole game, the Spartans looked legit. I know it’s November, but you can expect to see a lot of green and white on the San Antonio Riverwalk in a few months.
- Don’t sleep on the Zags. Last Year’s runner-up didn’t have much national buzz this pre-season, as they were ranked 17th in the country and picked to finish second in their own conference. Yes, they have some new faces, but as Seth Davis is continually pointing out on Twitter, the “Zags Got Dudes.” Yes, I am a Gonzaga alum and yes, I have some bias, but this Zags squad handled Ohio State easily, had three shots to beat Florida in OT (lost in 2OT) and handled Texas better than what their OT win indicated. Jonathan Williams, Josh Perkins, Killian Tillie, and Dark-Horse Rui Hachimura make up the nucleus of a squad that can beat anyone in the country.
- Shaka Smart has Texas going in the right direction. They were better than Duke in the Semis for 35 minutes and have some special players in the post. Mohamed Bamba can lie down at mid-court and touch both baselines simultaneously. He impacts the game in a way that goes far beyond the stat line, which is going to include about four blocks per game. Dylan Osetowski is the veteran on the team and was incredible against Duke’s Marvin Bagley. He’s going to have an incredible season. Look for Texas to hover in the AP Top 25 all season long. If this young group can mesh, nobody will want to see the Longhorns in their bracket come March.
- The Rose Quarter is Awesome. Being from Seattle, I am sensitive to arena-based conversations. But I couldn’t help but marvel at what Portland has in the Rose Quarter. The Moda Center is big, modern, and a great place to see a game. They could turn the thermostat up a couple degrees, but aside from that it is flawless. In the same plaza lies Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The former home of Jack Ramsay, Clyde Drexler and Bill Walton, seeing a game here will take you back in time. Collectively, these two arenas can seat roughly 33,000 basketball fans on a single evening, and provided the best place in America for a tournament like this to be held. Kudos to Portland for having the foresight to keep Veteran’s arena around.
- Portland State is Good. Really Good. They press, they shoot the three, and are a matchup nightmare for anyone. Duke got all they wanted in game one, only pulling away in the last five minutes. Butler snuck out a win over the Vikings in game two. However, the Vikings finally got the win they deserved in their final game, beating Stanford handily and sending the Cardinal to a goose-egg for the tournament. Portland State is my early favorite to win a competitive Big Sky conference and could easily win a game or two in the Big Dance.
- The Pac-12 is in trouble. Oregon and Stanford both appear to be down this season. Looking outside of the PK80, Arizona capped a three-game losing streak by getting blown-out by Purdue. WSU was the lone bright spot on a tough weekend for the conference that also saw #10 USC take a loss. Only two or three bids to the Big Dance for the “Conference of Champions” wouldn’t be a shock.
The PK80 was an incredible event, and it’s a shame there aren’t currently plans to make it an annual tradition. Every team that went to this event is better for it and played high quality competition at a neutral site. An announcement that the PK Invitational is going to be at least a bi-annual event would truly be Christmas in November for any basketball fan.