• Oregon peaking as Pac-10 tourney approaches

UCLA coach Steve Lavin knows good college basketball when he sees it. He hasn't seen much from the Bruins this season, but he offered up some compliments to Oregon after the Ducks' 79-48 pasting of his team.

'They seem to be peaking at the right time of the season,' Lavin says of the Ducks. 'They're also playing with great intensity defensively and intelligence on the offensive end. They've got their program rolling.'

Or did the Ducks simply impress the lame-duck coach of a bad team on an awful Saturday?

Oregon will encounter two stiffer tests this week in the Valley of the Sun: Thursday at Arizona State and Saturday at Arizona. The Ducks are 3-4 in Pacific-10 Conference road games and have been beaten by an average of 17 points in the losses. They have beaten Washington State, Oregon State and UCLA on the road.

ASU's Ike Diogu, the league's best post player, will face Oregon at a time when its five big men are supposedly playing their best ball of the year. As added incentive, the Ducks and Sun Devils will play each other in the Pac-10 tournament next week, at 3:50 p.m. March 13 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. ASU isn't assured an NCAA Tournament berth, sitting on the bubble at 17-10. So, the Devils will be hungry.

Then comes Arizona, the country's No. 1-ranked team that burst Oregon's bubble at McArthur Court in early January. The Wildcats took away the UO's motion offense, breaking down Luke Jackson and outrebounding the Ducks 50-28. Want to earn national respect again, Oregon? A win in Tucson would do it.

An NCAA Tournament bid seems to be certain now, with Oregon beating the L.A. schools last week in the comfy confines of Mac Court to improve to 20-7. The problem is that the next four games, and possibly more, will be away from that comfort zone.

Still, the Ducks are one win ahead of last year's team, which made the Elite Eight, and coach Ernie Kent believes that they have put their rocky past behind them.

The Lukes are the key to Oregon's eventual success, because Ridnour and Jackson are go-to players, and games turn on their performances. The play of the frontcourt Ñ forwards Robert Johnson and Jay Anderson, and posts Brian Helquist, Matt Short and Ian Crosswhite Ñ will take on added importance because games get away from the Ducks when the big fellas struggle to rebound and defend.

Those five players combined for only 17 points Saturday, but they had 23 rebounds and only six turnovers. If they can score points here and there, not get outclassed on the boards, stay out of the way of the Lukes, set screens, grab loose balls and alter shots, they've done their job.

'Set screens, and let the guards do their thing,' Johnson says simply.

Kent does not promise playing time to any of the five big men. Performance in practice does not determine how much they play, he says. The players put on their uniforms, starters Helquist (usually) and Johnson trot out on the court, and Kent tries to substitute every five minutes or so. Playing the same big men 35 minutes won't work in Oregon's fast-paced system.

If Kent thinks that a player (see Helquist, Crosswhite) has been sluggish, that player will sit for an extended period.

'It's total feel,' Kent says. 'It's when the game starts Ñ who's moving their feet, who's staying in rhythm.'

Notes: Congratulations, Oregon State, you've all but made the Pac-10 tournament, the school's first postseason experience since 1990. At 13-12, it appears that a sweep of the Arizona schools and a victory or two in the Pac-10 tourney would get the Beavs into the National Invitation Tournament. Easier said than done.

The Portland Pilots have a real shot at winning their first West Coast Conference playoff game at 6 p.m. Friday against Loyola Marymount in San Diego. The Pilots beat the Lions 73-68 at home, holding them to 37.5 percent shooting while shooting 51 percent; the Lions won the rematch 86-71, shooting 51 percent, converting 31 of 42 free throws and outrebounding the Pilots for the second time.

Portland State's Jeb Ivey and Kevin Briggs went out in style, helping beat Idaho State and combining for 38 points in a loss to Weber State. Ivey led the Big Sky Conference in free-throw shooting (.908). He missed eight free throws in two years, setting the PSU standard for a career at .937. Still, the Vikings (5-22) matched the school record for fewest wins in a season.

Concordia (22-8) can join Cascade in the NAIA Division II men's tournament if the Cavs beat Albertson tonight at 7:30 at Concordia. É Lewis & Clark's season came to an end with a double-overtime loss at Willamette in the NCAA Division III Northwest Conference playoffs. Coach Bob Gaillard now must move on without his three best players, graduating seniors Kristofer Speier, Colin Oriard and Danny Winchester.

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