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Are Ducks the real deal?

Byline: Ron Bellamy / The Register-Guard

YOU ARE AN Oregon men's basketball fan, and you don't quite know what to make of this team that is blossoming in front of you, climbing in the rankings and the Pac-10 Conference standings.

You wonder if you can believe your eyes yet.

You wonder if you can invest your heart.

The Ducks blow out Louisville, and your spirits soar. Then they lose three straight road games, including at Portland. Spirits plummet. Then they defeat Arizona, not just at McArthur Court but in Tucson, where they hadn't won since the Blair Rasmussen days. Spirits soar. Then they lose at Arizona State, where other contenders won't.

And then they win a couple of close ones, rallying from behind to defeat California and then winning a wonderful game against Stanford last Saturday, the first win for coach Ernie Kent over the program for which he worked as an assistant coach. They are now ranked No. 23.

Ah, but you think, those were home games, and Stanford's slipped some, and ...

And so you wonder still. There's so much season left, the toughest part of the schedule is yet to come, and it could indeed prove that the Ducks were good, just not good enough.

But it could also wind up with this team being regarded in the same light as another Oregon team that was initially undervalued. That did much when only modest things were anticipated. That erased struggling performances early with tremendous wins down the stretch. That turned grumbles about the coach into accolades and an uncertain season into something special.

That was the 1994 Oregon football team that won the Pac-10 and went to the Rose Bowl (and was a Cotton Bowl team a season later).

We'll see. But what seems more than possible is that this is the best Oregon men's basketball team since the days of Ronnie Lee and Greg Ballard and the Kamikaze Kids.

These Ducks simply have more weapons than the (relatively) few Oregon bright spots since the mid-1970s. They have more depth, both on the floor and off the bench.

In some ways, the Ducks are reminiscent of some of the strong Arizona teams under Lute Olson, in the way they play unselfishly, in the way they shoot so well - from the field and from the free-throw line - and play an entertaining style and also play defense.

At their best, they're the kind of team that you'd order up for Oregon, if you were realistic enough to understand that NBA lottery picks, especially at center and power forward, aren't going to fall into Oregon's lap; that the Ducks will always have to develop players at those positions, and recruit wisely (and do well regionally) at others.

There are a couple of starters from the state of Oregon, Frederick Jones and Luke Jackson. There's another starter from the state of Washington, point guard Luke Ridnour, as well as a vital reserve, James Davis, from Vancouver, Wash. There are key JC transfers.

THE COMPONENTS of this team fit together so well. It looks indeed like a team put together with some planning, rather than haphazardly, and there have been a lot of Oregon teams since the Kamikaze Kids that haven't been able to say that.

With the improvement of center Chris Christoffersen, with the addition of Brian Helquist and Robert Johnson, and with the rise of Luke Jackson from role player to impact player, the Ducks don't give away any position on the floor, and they can bring players off the bench - Davis, Anthony Lever, Helquist - who can do more than simply hold the fort.

On talent, you'd take this team over Oregon's 1995 NCAA Tournament team, which started Jeff Potter and Darryl Parker at forwards, Zach Sellers at center, Kenya Wilkins and Orlando Williams at guard, and off the bench brought a group that included Jordy Lyden, Jamal Lawrence and Henry Madden.

And on talent, you'd take this team over the 2000 NCAA team, which started seniors A.D. Smith, Alex Scales and Darius Wright, with Jones as a sophomore, Flo Hartenstein or Julius Hicks at center, and Bryan Bracey and Lever (as first-year transfers) as reserves.

But those two teams got there. Got to the NCAA Tournament by winning road games and close games. Got there when Sellers tipped in a late shot at Arizona State in '95, and when Wright threw in a bomb at the buzzer to defeat ASU in Mac Court in '00, a season that featured overtime road wins in Washington and a nailbiter of a win at USC.

The '95 team was 19-9 overall and 11-7 in the Pac-10 (including 5-4 on the road in league play). The 2000 team was 22-8 overall and 13-5 in the Pac-10 (including 6-3 on the road in league).

Beginning with Saturday night's Civil War against Oregon State, these Ducks play five of seven on the road, the Corvallis trip followed by the Washington schools up there, then by UCLA and Southern California at Mac Court, then by the Bay Area swing.

After that stretch, one way or another, you won't be wondering anymore.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 18, 2002
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