Heading into the 2006-07 season, there was not a coach in the country whose seat was hotter than Oregon’s Ernie Kent. The Ducks were coming off two very disappointing seasons and had not participated in post-season play since they lost to Michigan in the semi-finals of the NIT in 2004. However, there was reason for optimism in Eugene. Oregon returned five of their six leading scorers from last season, including four capable guards in Aaron Brooks, Malik Hairston, Bryce Taylor and Chamberlain Oguchi. Coach Kent added to that crowded backcourt by signing Tajuan Porter, a 5’6” guard out of Detroit Renaissance High School, where he played with Hairston.
In the first three games of his career, Porter scored a total of 93 points to lead the Ducks to a 3-0 start. Six games later, Oregon found themselves at 9-0, and Porter poured in double-digits in each contest. Included in the season-opening streak was an impressive 57-50 victory at then No. 23 Georgetown. Despite Porter’s absence in the next two games due to a sprained toe, Oregon remained undefeated and emerged from non-conference play unscathed at 12-0.
While their out-of-conference competition was far from rigorous, only featuring two road games (at Rice 79-73, and at Georgetown 57-50), Ducks’ schedule was hardly the only reason for their eye-opening start. Improved conditioning programs and a renewed focus on defense should be attributed for the Oregon’s early-season success.
Conference play proved to be a different story, as the Ducks found out in just their second Pac-10 contest by suffering their first setback of the season in an 84-82 loss to Southern Cal. However, the schedule allowed no time for sulking. Two days later, the #1 team in the nation and 2006 NCAA runner-up, UCLA, paid a visit to ‘The Pit.’ Talk about a prime opportunity for the Ducks to prove to the nation—via a nationally televised audience—that their torrid start was anything but a fluke.
In the first half Oregon jumped out to a 40-30 lead with Brooks, Taylor and Maarty Leunen contributing 38 of those 40 points. The Ducks maintained the lead throughout the second half until Oregon’s Bryce Taylor unleashed an ill-advised three-point attempt under the following circumstances: Oregon ahead by three, just thirty seconds left in the game, and an eternity still remaining on the shot clock (20 seconds). As often happens after a bad shot, UCLA’s Darren Collison knocked down an open three on the ensuing possession to tie the score at 66. But Aaron Brooks, the Ducks leading scorer and senior leader, had an answer. He got by Collison, pulled up from the baseline, and knocked down the game-winner. Just like that Oregon upset UCLA and handed the nation’s top-ranked team its first loss of the season. Brooks was phenomenal, knocking down nine of 13 from the field and six of six from the line to finish with 25 points. As the Oregon faithful stormed the court, Ernie Kent stood on the sideline, nearly motionless. Never a coach to show much emotion, you could barely tell that his team had just upset the #1 team in the nation—and in the process may have removed his name from the hot seat.
What should allow the Ducks to keep their coach out of hot water is their athleticism, Oregon’s strongest suit. All of their guards are quick, can handle the rock, and have the ability to knock down open shots. Opponents will find it virtually impossible to press them. While not quite at the level that Villanova was last year with Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Kyle Lowry and Mike Nardi, the contingent of Duck guards should be regarded as one of the best backcourts in the country. Brooks is the clear leader of this group, and if he steps up like he did against UCLA, Oregon will be tough to beat.
The Ducks do, however, lack a definite post presence. Leunen, a 6’9” forward, often runs the “5” spot for the Ducks and he sometimes seems more comfortable on the perimeter than on the low block. With four guards on the court at seemingly all times, the Oregon offense consists mostly of a “four out, one in” motion set and another motion set where all five guys start beyond the perimeter. The spread offense gives Brooks and his teammates the opportunity to penetrate because it opens up the middle; and they take full advantage. All of the guards move very well without the ball and because of their ability to penetrate, shooters are often open at the wing. However, if the Ducks have an off-night shooting the ball from the outside, they could find it very difficult to score points.
On the defensive side of the ball against UCLA, Oregon mixed up conventional man defense along with a 2-3 match-up zone that kept the Bruins off balance for most of the second half. They institute the 2-3 match-up zone to make up for their lack of size. However, Taylor (6’5”) and Oguchi (6’5”) are bigger guards who can defend opponent’s 3’s and 4’s when they implement their four-guard lineup. Still, Oregon lacks anyone who can really defend down low, so a team with an effective scorer in the post could cause them problems. While their lack of size and strength is a cause for concern on defense, it will be tough for teams to match their quickness when the Ducks have the basketball.
In guiding the Ducks to a 14-1 start and #17 ranking, Ernie Kent has risen to the surface of his cauldron. Oregon’s regular-season conference record over the past two seasons, 13-23, could give them cause for concern, but I believe that this is a different team. The Ducks will continue to cause match-up problems all season on the offensive end and Aaron Brooks is playing like a man who wants to conclude his career at Oregon by playing in the NCAA Tournament. Two other factors give reason to believe that Oregon’s success should continue: the re-emergence of Tajuan Porter, who has struggled since his toe injury, and the highly-anticipated return of last year’s leading scorer, Malik Hairston, who has missed all but five games this year with a heel problem.
The Pac-10 should send at least six teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2007 and right now it looks like the Ducks should be one of them. If so, it will be the first time that Oregon has participated in the Big Dance since 2003, when they lost to Utah in the first round. With an NCAA tournament appearance on the horizon, will Ernie Kent finally crack a smile? If he chooses to keep a straight face, Aaron Brooks will definitely do the honors and crack a big smile for the entire Duck nation of Eugene, Oregon.