ON COLLEGE HOOPS: UO returns four starters and has depth in the wings
by: DILIP VISHWANAT, Malik Hairston, posting up against Joakim Noah of Florida, is expected back for his senior year.

Oregon made a great run in the NCAA Tournament, and the players and coaches hope and expect to do the same thing next year. The talent, minus guard Aaron Brooks, will be there. And the feeling of being one of the best teams in the country has been intoxicating.

'We had a great taste of success. It'll make us work even harder,' forward Maarty Leunen says. 'It's unbelievable at this point - the attention and the opportunity to compete for the national championship. I want to go even further.'

Bryce Taylor and Malik Hairston, who have NBA aspirations, apparently will be back for their senior seasons. Ernie Kent wants to return as coach, and meetings with new Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny will determine if he will, and if his contract will be extended.

'How could you not want him back?' Kilkenny says.

'My heart's at Oregon, and people know my heart's at Oregon. I've never wavered,' says Kent, who has an agent willing to listen to other teams. 'The question is, if Oregon wants me there. Then it becomes a great situation.'

The Ducks (29-8) showed they belonged among the nation's elite.

'Even against the defending national champions, we never backed down from the first minute to the last minute,' Leunen says of Sunday's 85-77 defeat to Florida in the Midwest Regional final at St. Louis. 'Unfortunately, we lost. But they're a great team.'

Says Hairston: 'This is another year we have to put behind us. It'll be a new year, and we can't live off our laurels. We have to move forward.'

Brooks, who had 25 points against Florida in his final collegiate game and led the Pac-10 in scoring, now heads to the pros. He matured and lived up to his potential, just as Freddy Jones did on the 2002 Elite Eight team.

Scouts say Brooks should be at least second-round NBA draft material.

'I had fun. I've grown a lot during these four years,' Brooks says. 'We're always going to be a family, so it's not a parting.'

Hairston calls Brooks 'the epitome of consistency' and adds, 'He shot the ball well and got into the lane and created. He's got a great future.'

Adam Zahn also departs after playing good soldier, as have many other UO big men in recent years - Jay Anderson, Brian Helquist, Matt Short, Mitch Platt and Ray Schafer. A good leaper and physical player, Zahn got everything out of his talent, and always can say he almost helped the Ducks make the Final Four.

Oregon also says goodbye to unsung backup guard Adrian Stelly, the walk-on from Benson High who put in four solid years.

The Ducks went 12-0 in the preseason, including another benchmark - a 57-50 victory Nov. 29 at Georgetown. Today, the Hoyas are preparing for the Final Four. Brooks' jumper beat another Final Four team, UCLA, 68-66 on Jan. 6. The Ducks annihilated three Pac-10 tourney opponents by an average of 21 points and beat Miami (Ohio), Winthrop and UNLV in the NCAA Tourney.

On paper, the 2007-08 Ducks will be very good - maybe not as good as UCLA, which will get even better with Lake Oswego's Kevin Love in the fold, but certainly as good as Stanford, USC, Arizona and Washington State, all of them fellow 2007 NCAA Tournament teams.

Rotation full of veterans

Porter, who will be back at point guard, says Brooks showed him how to lead a team and get off a last-minute shot. 'He's been a good mentor. I'm going to miss him,' Porter says.

The Ducks hope incoming freshman Kamyron Brown, a 6-1 point guard from Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., can play some minutes.

Churchill Odia, a 6-6 guard, will return for his junior year after riding UO's bench.

Next season, Bryce Taylor, Hairston and Leunen might play their more traditional positions.

The 6-5 Taylor, an electric jumper, could play more as a 2 guard.

'That's my main goal, I want to be able to play in the NBA,' he says. 'But I still feel like I have weaknesses that I want to improve on - my left hand (dribbling, driving), ballhandling, midrange shooting, my body.'

Hairston, 6-6, played down low and became more of a factor as he got healthy from groin and foot injuries. He's naturally a small forward. He hopes to show more explosiveness, which NBA hopefuls usually do.

'I love to get in the lane and pass, push the ball up, get my teammates going,' he says. 'I know I'm capable of being explosive. I like smart basketball, not selfish basketball.'

Hairston also wants to work on his post game - 'a lot of guards have post games at the next level,' he says - and get better at ballhandling and shooting.

As for leaving early to try the NBA, 'my whole focus is college basketball,' Hairston says, not giving a 'yes' or a 'no.' Hairston will finish his degree in political science soon.

Leunen says Hairston isn't going anywhere.

'I'm his roommate, I would know,' Leunen says. 'We expect everybody to be back.'

Guard Chamberlain Oguchi, the 6-5 mad bomber whose shot went south this season, will have an opportunity to play more.

And the Ducks will get 6-5 redshirt guard LeKendric Longmire involved.

A walk-on, 6-5 Josh Akwenuke from Westview High, also returns at guard.

The Ducks like the talent of 6-7 prep recruit Drew Viney, but he has to adjust to school -and compete with more experienced players at small forward.

Joevan Catron, a burly 6-6 freshman, gave Oregon good energy, rebounding and interior play. He'll be a factor next season. Perhaps Platt and Schafer will progress enough to take some of the post load. And Frantz Dorsainvil, 6-8 from Quebec, Canada, loves to bang and rebound.

If all goes well, Leunen could be freed up to play more of a power-forward role.

'I want to work on my offensive game,' he says. 'I'll have to be more of a threat next year. I could slide by this season.'

Kent reconnected with team

Kent changed this season, although he admits only to becoming 'an older coach' who put more trust in his veterans. With his job on the line, Kent loosened up his style, the players say.

'He put more emphasis on making us accountable for our actions - starting with getting our bodies correct, getting into condition to become a running team,' Brooks says.

Hairston says Kent grew this season along with the players. 'He did a great job of getting us together and keeping us together,' Hairston says.

Taylor says Kent became more personable. 'He made an extra effort to be a more approachable coach,' Taylor says. 'In the past, he wasn't so great at that. In a different way, he's become more demanding and a disciplinarian. So it makes for a good coach-player relationship.'

Kent was around the players more this season, Leunen says. 'It's been just a coach-player relationship (before), not much communication off court,' Leunen adds. 'Definitely, in the last year, you saw him around a lot more, hanging out with us. At times, he's just one of the guys; it's not just about basketball.'

There has been much speculation that Kilkenny wants to get rid of Kent and go after Gonzaga's Mark Few, or let Kent walk to another school.

'Rumors are rumors,' Hairston says. 'I don't believe them. Ask anybody in this room, and they'll say Coach Kent should be our coach.

'Coach Kent doesn't dribble, pass or shoot. He's a coach. He's done a better job of putting us into position to succeed. He's always been a great coach.'

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