Heading Pac-10 pack, Oregon no longer stranger to success

Ducks' No. 13 ranking best since '75

Gophers in contention in Big Ten

National notebook

February 08, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

A funny thing happened to the Oregon men's basketball team this week.

It was discovered.

It took the Ducks 22 games -- including 17 victories and a 9-2 start in the Pacific 10 Conference -- to get their first national ranking of the season. Oregon went from unranked to No. 13 this week, the school's highest ranking since 1975.

Considering what transpired after the football team was snubbed by the Bowl Championship Series -- playing as the No. 3 team in the Fiesta Bowl rather than for the national championship in the Rose Bowl -- the Ducks were stunned to see this sudden surge of recognition.

"We kind of use it as motivation," sophomore point guard Luke Ridnour said. "We have to earn everything we get."

Such is life for a program long considered among the have-nots out west. Oregon's history as a national power is ancient, given that the Ducks won the first NCAA championship in 1939 and have been to the NCAA tournament only twice since 1961.

Even this year's record is a bit suspect. Aside from its 29-point win last week at home over UCLA and a 30-point win at home last month over Arizona, the Ducks have lost at Washington and Arizona State. They fell to 9-3 in the conference with last night's overtime loss at No. 20 Stanford.

"I think we have just not closed out games well on the road," said coach Ernie Kent, in his fifth season in Eugene. "But we've played pretty well on the road."

Because of the Pac-10's television contract, only the league's marquee teams get national exposure. That means the Ducks are limited to a few highlights now and then, and the word of the league's other coaches. And the word is that Oregon could be a dangerous team in March.

"The thing that makes them so hard to guard is that [their] three best players can penetrate, shoot and pass," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. "They create a lot of problems because they're not one-dimensional. Those three kind of remind me of the three who won a national championship for us here."

The Ducks are led by senior Frederick Jones as well as the two Lukes, sophomores Ridnour and Luke Jackson. They have also been helped by the steady progress of 7-foot-2 Chris Christoffersen.

"Having a point guard like Luke Ridnour makes them a Sweet 16 team, an Elite Eight team or even a Final Four team," Oregon State coach Ritchie McKay said.

Especially if the NCAA tournament were being played on MacArthur Court, the 75-year old gym that serves as Oregon's home floor. The second-oldest home court in the country -- the folks at Fordham claim Rose Hill Gym is a year older -- it has become one of the toughest venues to play at in the country.

"I wouldn't trade our fans for any in the country," Ridnour said. "Some of those other places might be tough, but I think we have the biggest home-court advantage in the country."

Gopher sighting

Minnesota, a program that many thought had been placed on double-secret probation after the academic scandal that cost Clem Haskins his job, has risen quickly under Dan Monson.

Now in his third season, Monson has the Gophers in contention for an NCAA tournament bid -- that's if Minnesota can keep winning at home and start winning with a little more regularity on the road. The Gophers are 13-7 overall (6-3 in the Big Ten) going into Iowa tomorrow.

"For us to be successful in the league, we have to win some road games," Monson told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune recently. "To do that we have to get better defensively."

Minnesota showed that it can stay with the league's powers with home victories over Ohio State and Indiana, but now must prove it can do it away from ancient Williams Arena. Part of the reason for the Gophers' return to respectability has been the play of freshman Rick Rickert.

"We knew he was going to be a very good player in this league, you just didn't know when," said Monson, who came to Minnesota from Gonzaga. "Fortunately, it seems to be happening now."

Only in Hollywood

It figures that UCLA forward Billy Knight described his game-winning three-pointer over crosstown rival USC in terms of a movie, given the location of the two schools.

"I caught the pass and it was slow motion, like `The Matrix' ," Knight said.

The victory kept the 16-6 Bruins in the hunt in the Pac-10 race, and kept the fickle fans of Westwood off Steve Lavin's beleaguered back for another few weeks.

Planting seeds

From now until the NCAA tournament, The Sun will run its weekly seedings for the top four teams from each regional. The seedings will be made before Thursday night's games.

East

1. Duke

2. Cincinnati

3. Miami

4. Kentucky

West

1. Oklahoma

2. Arizona

3. Florida

4. Utah

South

1. Maryland

2. Alabama

3. Marquette

4. Indiana

Midwest

1. Kansas

2. Georgia

3. Ohio State

4. Pittsburgh

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