Montana faces a tough chore in stopping Ducks' fast break
So, the journey continues, and the fast-breaking, No. 11-ranked Oregon Ducks will next try to run through Montana Ñ the team, not the state Ñ after running with the underdog label to the Pacific-10 Conference championship.
'We are really ready,' says coach Ernie Kent, whose Ducks (23-8) will play the Grizzlies (16-14) at 2 p.m. Thursday in Sacramento in the NCAA Midwest Regional. 'This is unchartered territory for the University of Oregon.'
The re-energized Ducks claim to have already forgotten about their last game, an 89-78 Pac-10 tourney defeat to USC.
'The loss didn't hurt us,' Kent says. 'We are a pretty good basketball team. We just need to get our legs back.'
If the Ducks, who are making their seventh NCAA Tournament appearance, get past Montana, they will play either Wake Forest (20-12) or Pepperdine (22-8). Oregon thumped the latter 88-64 on Dec. 14 as part of its 16-0 record at McArthur Court.
With two wins, would Oregon play Mississippi State in the Sweet 16 and Kansas in the Elite Eight in Madison, Wis.?
Not to jump ahead, but the Ducks have high expectations after their breakthrough season, the school's best in 63 years. Sixty-three!
They are the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Regional behind Kansas Ñ don't be confused with the Midwest seeding and games at Sacramento; the NCAA sent many teams to sites close in proximity in order to save costs. And tournament zealots from Los Angeles to Bristol, Conn., say the Ducks can legitimately make the Final Four because they shoot the basketball really well.
But, first things first: Montana, the Midwest's 15th seed. The Grizzlies were 13-14 until the Big Sky Tournament, where they beat Northern Arizona, Montana State and Eastern Washington for the title and automatic NCAA bid.
Montana never won more than three consecutive games all year and didn't show NCAA Tournament potential until the Big Sky playoffs.
Portland State coach Joel Sobotka, whose team lost to Montana 99-88 and 80-66, has a good read on the Grizzlies. The offense revolves around athletic 6-6 senior Dan Trammel (11 points per game) and sharpshooter David Bell (14 ppg), who launched 244 3-pointers and shot 40 percent from the distance.
'A veteran group with four or five seniors, including four 6-6 to 6-8 post guys,' Sobotka says. 'They have two solid point guards (Shane Christensen, Sam Riddle). Bell is a lot like Oregon's James Davis, unconscious at times from 3-point land. The Trammel kid will be huge.'
Brent Cummings and Ryan Slider, who know Oregon's Freddie Jones from their Gresham childhood, also start for Montana.
Sobotka's scouting report:
'Anyone would say you have to slow Oregon down. I don't know if (Montana) can do it. Transition defense will be tough for them. To have a shot at Oregon, they have to catch Oregon on the wrong night shooting the ball. And they don't have anybody close to matching up with (7-2 center) Chris Christoffersen. They might try to pull him away from the basket.'
Oregon led the Pac-10 in all shooting categories and scoring and ranks third in the country at 86 points a game.
'Their transition game is phenomenal,' Washington's Doug Wrenn says. 'They just get it, and they go.'
Kent says point guard Luke Ridnour may have been 'an unknown commodity' entering the season, but the Pac-10 and the country are finding out the kind of special player he is. Most teams will try to stop Ridnour and fellow guards Jones and Luke Jackson and reserves Anthony Lever and Davis from getting fast-break layups and open jump shots.
Kent says the transition game stems more from the Ducks' improved defense.
And, if Christoffersen and Robert Johnson establish themselves offensively in the paint, 'our perimeter players are difficult to match up with in the halfcourt,' Kent contends.
NOTES: Let us just say Oregon beats Montana. Either Wake Forest or Pepperdine would be next. É Wake Forest came within one point of beating Maryland and 15 of Duke this year but did not pull off any major upsets in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Demon Deacons are led by 6-9 Lithuanian senior Darius Songalia (17.8 ppg) and forward Josh Howard (14.5). É Kent and his assistants can watch the Dec. 14 game film to remember Pepperdine. The Waves played without forward Glen McGowan, suspended for the season's first 10 games. É The Ducks held Pepperdine to 31.7 percent shooting; leading scorer Jimmy Miggins had 17 points, Portlander Craig Lewis 12 and Gary Colbert 11. Another Portlander, Boomer Brazzle, a key figure in the Waves' roll into the NCAA tourney, scored five. Jones had 21 points and Ridnour 20. The Ducks outrebounded the Waves 54-27 Ñ a tremendous differential. É But that was three months ago. Pepperdine shared the West Coast Conference title with Gonzaga and knocked off the Zags as well as UCLA and USC during the regular season, a coup for new coach Paul Westphal (yes, the same Westphal who coached the Phoenix Suns and Seattle SuperSonics).
The Waves are athletic and well coached, says Michael Holton, the University of Portland coach whose team got beat by Pepperdine three times. The 6-6, 190 Miggins is averaging 15 points, Terrance Johnson 13.2, Devin Montgomery 11.4, Brazzle 11, McGowan 9.6 and Lewis 9.3. É 'They change their defense quite a bit, and they've got a good press,' Holton says. 'In the halfcourt, they've got a lot of pro offensive sets with spacing, and they've got guys (like Miggins) who can put the ball on the floor.'