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Ducks raise basketball bar

• No matter what happens in tourney, Oregon hopes its style entices elite recruits

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Ñ Luke Jackson refutes all the talk about how Oregon, if it gets by Utah in the NCAA Tournament, most likely will get spanked by Kentucky.

'I think we can beat any team in this country,' the junior guard says. 'That's our goal going into the tournament. It might not have been the goal last year, and I think it might have been why we fell short.

'This year, an NCAA title would be huge. I think we can do it. I know we can do it.'

The Ducks (23-9) and Utes (24-7) tip off at approximately noon PST today at the Gaylord Entertainment Center, live on CBS, after the Kentucky-IUPUI game. If the Ducks win, they'll play Sunday for another chance to go to the Sweet Sixteen, next week in Minneapolis.

By tonight, however, the Ducks might be reflecting on another successful year. They could be waiting to hear whether Jackson and Luke Ridnour plan to enter the NBA draft. They could be getting ready to fit redshirts Adam Zahn and Jordan Kent into the mix, along with incoming point guard Aaron Brooks and center recruits Mitch Platt and Ray Shafer.

The Ducks have established themselves as one of the West Coast's elite programs Ñ an NCAA tourney team for the third time in four years, an Elite Eight team last year, the Pacific-10 Conference tournament champion this year.

The Ducks are making back-to-back NCAA appearances for the first time since 1959-61. Oregon has won 20 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1937-39.

Coach Ernie Kent says simply knocking off UCLA and USC in Los Angeles, then beating the Trojans on national television for the Pac-10 title, added to the Ducks' reputation.

'Hopefully, young people will see us across the country and see that style of play, and that chemistry, where guys pass the ball, and it will enhance our recruiting down the road,' Kent says. 'Certainly, it puts us in position to be one of the upper-echelon teams in the conference for years to come.'

'Hiccup' in the past

It's all happened thanks to the Lukes, Kent's emphasis on an up-tempo and the players buying into playing defense, which absolutely eluded them two years ago in a season the coach calls 'a hiccup.' That was the Lukes' freshman year, and the Ducks sank to 14-14 with locker-room bickering and Bryan Bracey alienating teammates.

'To be honest, when we came here, we knew we were good, but we weren't as good as we needed to be,' Jackson says. 'That was the reality. It set in. We have worked hard since that day to prove to everybody that we are good. We're good enough to be a power in this league.

The Lukes, he says, 'are two forces that people are going to have to recognize every time they play us.'

Jackson thinks about sweeping Arizona and UCLA last year, beating Texas in the Sweet Sixteen and returning this season to beat Kansas in December. He thinks about the perception of how maybe Oregon is riding high simply because he and Ridnour take the floor every night.

'Putting time in the gym gives you confidence,' Jackson says. 'Once you know how good you are as a basketball player, if you have a desire to be a winner, if you're really competitive, it doesn't matter who you're playing. You're going to go right at them, attack them and not give up.

'In your mind, you think you're better than anybody else out there.'

Notes: Marvin Williams from Bremerton, Wash., one of the West Coast's top juniors, has narrowed his college choices to five, including Oregon. Working in the Ducks' favor: Williams and Brooks are good buddies and AAU teammates. É A proud Australian, Ian Crosswhite says the 2,000 troops his country dedicated to the war in Iraq will be prepared. 'It's the SAS,' he says, 'one of the top five special forces in the world. It's all we have.' The Aussies quickly backed the U.S. military effort. 'We always do,' Crosswhite says. É Coach Kent worked for an oil company and coached in Saudi Arabia from 1980 to 1987. 'In our environment, we were with Muslim-Arabs who were Westernized, and it was a different mentality,' he says. 'Back then it was not a huge negative sentiment (toward America). There's some wherever you go, until those people get over and see what a great country this is.' É Kent says this about Shafer, from Wasilla, Alaska: 'Here's a guy who gets up at 4:30 every morning and goes to the gym. He folds his pants and scrambles his eggs the night before, so he can sleep in to 4:30 and get out the door quickly. I got a 7-footer who works that hard, I think he's got a pretty good chance to be a pretty good player, if he's that committed before he even gets here.' É Former Duck guard Alec Scales has been named to the all-Continental Basketball Association second team. He scored a CBA season-high 52 points in one game and averaged 19.7. Also on the second team: former Phoenix Suns center Oliver Miller.

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