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BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/No. 1-ranked Portland Community College faces Clackamas in league opener Wednesday

TRIBUNE PHOTO: PAUL DANZER - GARRETTWhen he took the coaching job at Portland Community College six seasons ago, Tony Broadous envisioned building a platform for Portland area players to get a chance to develop while getting started on a college degree.

In the process, a program that never made the Northwest Athletic Conference playoffs until winning it all in 2014 has become more than competitive against other two-year college teams in Oregon and Washington.

This season's Panthers enter NWAC play expecting to compete for the South Region title. They are 9-0 against like competition and ranked No. 1 in the most-recent NWAC coaches' poll.

The No. 1 ranking is a first, according to Broadous — though his second PCC team won the league title in 2013-14.

"It's a big deal. We take (the ranking) seriously, and we've talked about it quite a bit," sophomore forward Cameron Retherford says. "There's a target on our back now, so we've got to come ready every day."

Retherford and Katahdin "KJ" Bosco, both from Benson Tech, and Gabe Garrett, from Jefferson High, are returning starters from a team that finished third in the South and lost in the first round of the NWAC tournament last season.

Garrett, a 6-4 wing, was all-conference as a freshman and is averaging 17.7 points per game this season. Garrett describes his game as "unique" because of the variety of ways he attacks the basket.

His coach agrees.

"He can find different angles to score the ball. He's only 6-4 and often guarded by bigger guys, but he's quicker than them and he spins and puts the ball off the glass from weird angles. He's tough," Broadous says.

Garrett's all-NWAC selection was his first such recognition.

"I was really happy about the award. In high school, I never got that. PCC, they believed in me," Garrett says. "After I got that award, it really motivated me to work hard this summer. I want to win a NWAC championship, and I want to win MVP of the whole league."

The first step toward a NWAC championship begins on Wednesday, when PCC opens South Region competition by playing host to Clackamas. CCC and Umpqua project as PCC's toughest opponents in the region.

With four players from 6-7 to 6-9, the Panthers have more size than most NWAC teams.

"We are an opportunistic team," Broadous says. "We like to pound it inside in the halfcourt, but every chance we get we will run and try to get easy baskets."

And the Panthers can score from 3-point range — Garrett, Bosco and Retherford are shooting above 40 percent from beyond the arc.TRIBUNE PHOTO: PAUL DANZER - RETHERFORD

For Retherford, PCC has provided an opportunity to reinvent himself. He went to Texas Tech to compete as a decathlete. After his freshman year, he needed back surgery to repair a ruptured disc and made the choice to switch to basketball.

If not for the injury, Retherford likely would have stuck with the decathlon and the NCAA Division I experience. But he'd competed in track and field since grade school and only started playing basketball as a high school freshman.

"So I felt I kind of shorted myself as far as what I could do in basketball. I decided to make the switch so I wouldn't have regrets later in life," Retherford says.

In addition to developing into a more confident and accomplished basketball player who hopes to land with a D-II basketball program next season, Retherford says PCC helped him academically.

"I didn't realize this when I was at Tech, but I had so much more growth to do," he says. "The classes are smaller (at PCC), and you connect with the teachers better, which is what I needed because academically I struggled when I was at Tech."

He is sharing his basketball experience with friends such as Bosco and point guard Frank Norman, another Benson grad, and 6-8 sophomore Lane Josi out of Liberty High, who is "almost like a cousin" because their fathers grew up together.

Bosco, a 6-7 forward who redshirted and was on the scout team during one season at Eastern Oregon, is working to strengthen his game after meniscus surgery last year.

The Panthers are averaging more than 20 assists per game.

"We all mesh really well. We share the ball. There's not one player that likes to go and score 50 every night," Bosco says.

Bosco says the NWAC is a better basketball league than many realize.

"The competition can be a mixture of guys who didn't go anywhere (for college) and guys who didn't make the grades who are really good players," Bosco says. "It's an interesting league with a wide variety of players."

Interesting, too, is the way some of those players wind up in the league. Portland freshman forward Michael Landi, from Geneva, Illinois, was working over the summer as a door-to-door salesman in Portland. He knocked on the door of Elahi Bradley-Muhammad, academic adviser for the PCC men's basketball program, which led Landi to a PCC open gym and a roster spot.

Broadous coached four years at Roosevelt and 10 at Grant (and was recently inducted into the Portland Interscholastic League Hall of Fame) before taking on the challenge of building a PCC basketball program. The Panthers were 1-49 in the previous two seasons and had never qualified for the NWAC tournament. He is proud that his roster features five former PIL players and eight players from Oregon.

That he and assistant coaches Ty White and Aaron Bell all played in the PIL and at NWAC community colleges helps with recruiting. Still, when he took over the Panthers, it was a tough sell to PIL players to start their college career in a gym at the PCC Cascade campus near Jefferson.BROADOUS

"That was an issue we battled when I first came, but we've been able to slowly change that," Broadous says. "Guys are understanding that they don't have to go out of town to go to a good school, get a good education, good coaching, play in front of good crowds and play in front of four-year (colleges) coaches so they can be seen."

Warren Edmondson, a member of PCC's 2014 championship team, played two seasons at Montana State Northern. Carl Appleton from the 2014 team played two seasons at Lewis & Clark.

Exposure for his players was among the reasons Broadous scheduled a December trip to Utah for games against nationally-ranked junior college teams that offer full-ride scholarships. PCC, by comparison, has the equivalent of three full-tuition scholarships to spread among its roster.

The Panthers lost to the College of Southern Idaho (88-77) and Salt Lake Community College (86-55), whose rosters feature players being recruited by NCAA D-I teams. Salt Lake is No. 4 and Southern Idaho No. 9 in the most recent National Junior College Athletic Association poll. PCC fell behind 12-0 to Southern Idaho and 15-0 to Salt Lake. Broudous says his team shot poorly in both games but learned from the experience.

"I've always wanted to elevate community college basketball in Portland, so I've been looking for ways to do that," Broadous says. He had invited top JC programs, but this was the first time he took his Panthers on the road to face nationally-ranked opponents.

PCC lost sophomore guard Joe Morales out of Roosevelt to a broken foot and another player to academics, but Broadous is confident his nine remaining players are capable of a special season.

"I have major confidence in all the guys," he says. "Everyone will get a ton of playing time, and we'll be tough to stop."

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