EUGENE Ñ Oregon coach Ernie Kent mentions his team in the same sentence as Arizona these days. He emphasizes that the Ducks beat Kansas in December.
If point guard Luke Ridnour returns for his senior season, Kent adds, the Ducks will have bridged the talent and continuity gap between themselves and the likes of Arizona, Kansas and others.
An upper-echelon, top-10 program?
'We feel like we're there,' Kent says.
Of course the big question is, will Ridnour return? He must declare for the NBA draft by May 11, and if he hasn't signed with an agent, he can back out as late as June 18, one week before the draft. Same with teammate Luke Jackson.
'We've put ourselves in a category,' Kent says. 'Every great program in the country has lost their best players to the NBA.
'It is a badge of honor. That's not a negative to me as much as it is a positive.'
Kent considers his incoming class an excellent one, declaring point guard Aaron Brooks, center Ray Schafer and forward Mitch Platt the best prep recruits at their positions on the West Coast.
Bias? 'No, because no one else would say it's bias,' Kent says. 'Are (Schafer and Platt) blue-chip big guys? No. Do they have the potential? Yes.'
Kent is still trying to improve his roster on the recruiting trail. One more scholarship is available, or more, depending on the Lukes. Kent wants a strong rebounder and another perimeter player.
Say Ridnour leaves, as many expect. Brooks, a McDonald's All-American from Seattle's Franklin High, would easily slip into the starting role and get ample support from Jackson and fellow guards Andre Joseph, James Davis, Brandon Lincoln and Jordan Kent.
The Ducks would miss Jackson more than Ridnour, simply because they don't have someone of Brooks' caliber stepping in at the third guard spot.
Big men, big roles
Up front, the 6-10 Platt and the nearly 7-foot Schafer should compete for playing time right away. Oregon likes Schafer's athleticism, and Platt comes with 265 pounds ready to bump and grind.
Kent plays the underdog role, though, when describing his big men. Never, he says, will Oregon get blue-chip big men when competing against the likes of Arizona, UCLA, Arizona or Kansas.
'There are only so many NBA potential big men out there,' he says. But, 'it's possible to develop them.'
Indeed, when you think of Oregon's frontcourt, you think of potential. Can the athletic Adam Zahn, a noted finisher, rebound and play defense? Will Ian Crosswhite get stronger and more aggressive? Will Jay Anderson and Matt Short give the Ducks consistent minutes and rebounding?
Inside game wanting
The Ducks (23-10) averaged 81.5 points this season. That was good, but down from 85.5 in 2001-02. Oregon shot .458 from the field this year, including .386 on 3-pointers, among the Pac-10's best. With a poor inside game, the Ducks cast more than 700 3-pointers. They also set a conference record for free-throw percentage (.774).
Their season was cut short, the players and coaches believe, because they simply did not shoot well in the NCAA Tournament loss to Utah. Never mind that Oregon never could trust its inside game.
If Ridnour returns, the Ducks believe they should be Pac-10 favorites, or at least be ranked closely behind Arizona. The Lukes would be to Oregon what seniors Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison were to Kansas this season, dedicated players returning for one last shot at the national championship.
Kent compares his team to Kansas, the way the Jayhawks get up and down the court.
'We slowed down this year,' he says. 'They played faster than us this year. We played faster than them last year.
'I want to speed us up. When you can get pressure from your defense, and turn right around and put pressure on with your offense, it makes you a potent and lethal team. It's not only fun for players and fans, you're always in attack mode.'