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You've come a long way, baby

ON COLLEGE HOOPS: Ducks enter Sweet 16 a smart, confident, mature team
by: JONATHAN FERREY, Oregon forward Malik Hairston celebrates the Ducks’ victory over Winthrop in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. Third-seeded UO moves on to a match with No. 7 UNLV in the Midwest Regional.

Oregon plays Nevada-Las Vegas in the Sweet 16 on Friday in St. Louis, and Duck coach Ernie Kent likes the matchup.

'UNLV is a long, athletic team, and we've played those kind of teams pretty well this year,' he says. 'It's going to be a tough basketball game, because they're on an amazing run, also.'

The Runnin' Rebels (30-6), enjoying their first NCAA Tourney success since 1991, average 75 points per game, featuring guards Wink Adams and Kevin Kruger - son of coach Lon Kruger - and forward Wendell White.

But the Ducks, winners of eight games in a row, will be ready.

'I don't know when Oregon's played a better stretch of basketball,' Kent says.

The Ducks have finally lived up to potential. A brief history lesson as Oregon prepares for the Runnin' Rebels:

Between wins over Winthrop, the first in 2004 being not nearly as noticeable as Sunday's, we have seen the evolution of the UO basketball program.

A ballyhooed recruiting class helped the Ducks start the 2004-05 season 9-1 (a 71-56 home victory over Winthrop came during that stretch).

Then reality set in, and the Ducks learned that maybe they weren't as good as everybody thought. Junior center Ian Crosswhite - 'arguably our best player,' Maarty Leunen says now - got booted off the team in midseason, and the Ducks went 6-12 in Pac-10 play.

The next season, Oregon had a losing record overall (15-18) and in the Pac-10 (7-11), and the story remained whether Kent had lost his players and should be fired or not.

Today, we see how much hard work, maturity and leadership mean, even to players who come into college with sterling reputations.

The Ducks (28-7) routed Winthrop 75-61 in the tourney's second round, looking every bit the collection of players who had learned their lessons the past two years. These guys can play offense and defense, they can fight through adversity, they're bigger and faster and more mentally tough, and they carry themselves like champions.

'I wouldn't call it a surprise,' says Kent, who guided the Ducks to the Elite Eight in 2002. 'As you get into the season, you see growth and maturity and toughness develop. I thought as long as they will do what they are coached to do, they have a chance to make a run in the tournament, and here we are.'

Included in Oregon's streak were three convincing Pac-10 Tournament wins. '(The Pac-10's were) one of the most amazing displays of basketball I've seen, and they're riding the wave,' Kent says.

'We knew what we had in the locker room,' Leunen says. 'We had to come together and go for one goal, work hard and get to this point.'

Growth reflected in attitude

Beyond the senior maturity of Brooks; the physical development of juniors Leunen, Malik Hairston and Bryce Taylor; and the emergence of freshmen Tajuan Porter and Joevan Catron, the most important intangible has been leadership.

Two years ago, and even last year, the Ducks never found it. Ask yourself, 'What if Crosswhite had panned out?'

'We were young and didn't know what to expect,' Leunen says. 'It was difficult, but we learned our lessons; we're at this point and we're not complaining.'

Says Brooks: 'Definitely, our leadership has been great - it's the biggest difference. We know what to do, we submit to each other. … There were higher expectations of us (the past two years); we were good high school players, but we couldn't put pieces together. We had high expectations -before we knew what 'it' was all about.'

'It' has been about being good teammates, sharing the ball and being safe with it, playing free-flowing offense without hoisting up too many 3-pointers and emphasizing switching-and-rotational and zone defenses.

It perturbed the Ducks to hear television commentators say they didn't play good defense, and they used that as motivation Sunday.

The Ducks have held seven of the past eight opponents to 63 points or less. Oregon has been terrific defending the post. The Ducks played man defense on Winthrop's 6-10 Craig Bradshaw and had as many as four players switching on him.

They need to do that, with 6-9 Leunen, 6-7 Hairston and 6-6 Catron down low, and 6-8 Adam Zahn playing some physical minutes.

Hairston and Leunen are playing out of position, really.

'We're fighters,' Hairston says. 'We want to do whatever we can to help this team win. It's tough banging with the big fellas, but we fight, we're able to box out and keep them off the glass, and we do a good job helping each other.'

Offensively, the Ducks have attacked the hoop and shot from long range, without settling for 3-pointers. They are 15-1 when they attempt fewer than 25 long balls.

'That's a good stat,' Kent says, smiling, 'but I'm still going to let Tajuan Porter shoot if he's hot.'

And, in the last 12 games, the Ducks have averaged only nine turnovers.

So, it's on to St. Louis, where the third-seeded Ducks play No. 7 UNLV, and No. 1 Florida plays No. 5 Butler, in the Midwest Region.

Hard work pays off

The Runnin' Rebels have some balance.

Kruger averages 13 points and five assists and shoots 35 percent from 3-point land; Adams averages 14 points and shoots 38 percent from long range; White averages 14 points, shoots 51 percent from the field and grabs six rebounds per game. UNLV has depth and brings a shot blocker (Joel Anthony) off the bench. The Runnin' Rebels average only 11 turnovers but have a minus rebounding margin.

UNLV has won nine games in a row.

'We want to continue to be hungry,' Hairston says.

'We've been so well-groomed with so many tough games,' Kent says. 'They have seen every kind of game you can imagine - teams that zone us, press us, big teams, small teams, slowdown teams. It's like, 'OK, there's no newfound offense they will see, let's make an adjustment. Here's what they're going to do, let's go play.'

'I hope I don't say a bad thing about coaching, but it's not like brain surgery. You play hard, defend, pressure the shot, block out, run the floor, make good decisions and shoot the ball. They've worked hard to get to this point. They're enjoying the fruits of their labor right now.'

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The Sweet 16

Friday: Oregon vs. UNLV at St. Louis, 6:40 p.m. PT, KOIN (6)

Game story: Go to www.localnewsdaily.com for Jason Vondersmith's report from the Edward Jones Dome

If the Ducks win: They would play Florida or Butler on Sunday; those two teams meet at 4:10 p.m. PT Friday