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Mission Impossible?

UO's tourney hopes require ousting Utah and probably No. 1 Kentucky

It'll be the stone statues against the run-and-gunners as Utah and Oregon play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament's Midwest Regional on Friday, a game sure to come down to who imposes the strongest will on the other.

Ninth-seeded Utah (24-7) will try to pound the ball inside, bang around Oregon's less physical interior players and keep the score in the 50s or 60s. Eighth-seeded Oregon (23-9) hopes to shoot 3-pointers, run the fast break and have 60 points two or three minutes into the second half.

Utah has three good frontcourt players, although the status of 6-10 Britton Johnsen, the team's best all-around player, remains uncertain. He sat out the Utes' two Mountain West Conference tournament games because of mononucleosis.

Johnsen's season may be over, which could put more emphasis on utilizing 6-10 center Tim Frost, the University of Portland transfer who leads the Utes in scoring at 13.1 points per game.

Oregon has Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson Ñ two of the best players in the country Ñ a couple off-guards (James Davis and Andre Joseph) who combine to average 21 points per game, and some serviceable post players who will be challenged by the more skilled Utes when the two teams meet at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville, Tenn. approximately noon PST.

'A big-time stage against a big-time program,' UO coach Ernie Kent says. 'It'll force us to play up with urgency. When we do that, we're pretty good.'

Should the Ducks get by Utah, they'll probably play No. 1-seeded Kentucky. The Wildcats are awesome defensively, good rebounders and very athletic Ñ a bad combination for the Ducks. If they're not one-and-done Friday, the Ducks are likely to be two-and-done by Sunday.

Coach Rick Majerus, in his 14th year, has taken Utah to the Final Four in the past with Portlander Mike Doleac at center and has rung up his share of big NCAA victories. He'll stress defense, rebounding and tempo against the Ducks, but how successful the Utes will be at controlling the game remains the question.

The Utes are just 3-3 in their last six games. They are coming off conference tournament losses to more athletic Nevada-Las Vegas, in which they shot only 30 percent from the field and scored 41 points, and to Air Force, which held them to 42 points.

Nick Jacobson, a 42 percent 3-point shooter who averages 12.9 points a game, gives the Utes some perimeter production. But Utah thrives in the halfcourt, with the rangy Frost and Johnsen getting the ball inside and senior 7-footer Cameron Koford throwing around his body. Utah outrebounds opponents by three boards per game, an indication that rebounding-challenged Oregon may have its hands full.

Tim Drisdom, a true freshman point guard, has started every game and leads the Utes in assists. Four-year player Trace Caton starts at the other guard spot.

It'll be interesting to watch Frost, the Klamath Falls native who sat out last year after transferring from the University of Portland. He left shortly after the Pilots fired then-coach Rob Chavez and moved on because his parents thought that Utah and Majerus would better prepare him for the pros. He's had a good junior year, grabbing five rebounds a game and shooting 51 percent from the field.

Majerus doesn't need to jog his memory much to come up with an idea of how to beat Oregon. He can just recall how point guard Andre Miller terrorized opposing defenses with his penetrating and shooting style, and he can apply some defensive principles in trying to control Ridnour.

Ridnour, sensational in the Pacific-10 Conference tournament in Los Angeles, surely will use his well-cultivated dribbling skills against the Utes. Can Drisdom or the 6-4 Caton defend him? Ridnour shot only 40 percent in the Pac-10 tourney, but he averaged 19 points and eight assists Ñ about his season averages Ñ and gave clinics on how to just win, baby.

Then you have Jackson, a coach's matchup nightmare who can shoot the 3-pointer and score on his patented leaning jumpers. The 6-7 junior, unlike Ridnour, definitely will return for his senior year, a UO assistant coach says. He added 10 boards per game in the three Pac-10 tourney games, and he always seems to make the little play to aid the Ducks' cause.

Look for Davis and Joseph to damage the Utes with their outside shooting. If Utah plays zone, can the Utes match up with Oregon's athleticism? Davis and Joseph will be well equipped to shoot over them. They combined for 20, 23 and 24 points in the Pac-10 tournament games on 23 of 50 shooting (15 for 35 on 3-pointers).

'We consistently got great looks' in Los Angeles, Kent says. 'Offensively, we did a nice job.

'Battle-tested,' Kent calls his Ducks. 'I don't think we're a real beat-up, fatigued team.'