Oregon no longer an ugly duckling

Surprise Pac-10 champs bring program back to national prominence

Midwest Regional

NCAA Tournament

March 22, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

MADISON, Wis. - Growing up, Chris Christoffersen didn't envision being part of the traveling circus known as the NCAA tournament. There were only 15 houses in Christoffersen's village in Denmark, and he played soccer, not basketball.

"Goalie," recalled Christofferson, who quickly outgrew the sport, started playing basketball six years ago and now, at 7 feet 2 and 300 pounds, starts at center for Oregon. "People didn't even know what basketball was."

The same could be said for the towns and cities where Luke Ridnour, Luke Jackson, Freddie Jones and the rest of the Ducks grew up in on the West Coast. Few equated Oregon with college basketball, at least winning basketball.

That changed dramatically this season, when a program that won the first-ever NCAA basketball championship went through its own collective growth spurt. It has led the Ducks to the Kohl Center, where tonight they will play as a No. 2 seed in the Midwest Regional semifinals.

Though most view the game between Oregon (25-8) and sixth-seeded Texas (22-11) as merely the entertaining undercard for the Sweet 16 heavyweight rematch from a year ago between top-seeded Kansas (31-3) and fourth-seeded Illinois (26-8), the Ducks simply don't care.

"Nobody expected us to do this," said Ridnour, the 6-2 sophomore with curly hair and deceptively fast hands. "We keep proving people wrong."

Picked to finish near the bottom of the Pac-10 after going 14-14 a year ago, Oregon went from early-season curiosity to midseason contender to the league's outright champion for the first time since the school's "Tall Firs" won it all it 1939.

Does this year's team have its own nickname?

"We've been called a lot of things," said Jones, a 6-4 senior who leads the Ducks in scoring (18.6 ppg), steals (57) and showtime dunks. "But I don't remember a lot of nicknames."

Ridnour has been compared with everyone from Jason Kidd to Pete Maravich to, well, let's listen to what Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said after Oregon beat the Demon Deacons, 92-87, in the second round in Sacramento.

"He's like Leonard Bernstein out there conducting a symphony," Prosser said after Ridnour scored 28 points, shot 7-for-11 on three-pointers and 9-for-15 overall while playing all 40 minutes. "He was terrific."

Ridnour, of course, might have heard of Len Bias, not Leonard Bernstein. He looks like he could be a high school sophomore, and until recently, carried his favorite basketball around wherever he went.

When he first met Ridnour on a recruiting trip to the player's hometown of Blaine, Wash., Oregon coach Ernie Kent was reminded of someone he knew very well - himself. Or least a younger version.

"Here was somebody who was very astute about the game of basketball, very focused and very driven to be successful at the highest level," said Kent, who played on some good Oregon teams in the mid-1970s, including a group known as "The Kamikaze Kids." "He had a flair for the game, he enjoyed entertaining people."

What the Ducks achieved this season goes back to last season, and to last summer. After internal problems between the seniors and freshmen tore the team apart - after a 10-1 start, things unraveled quickly - those returning vowed not to have a repeat performance.

It started during the summer pickup games at the school's famed MacArthur Court as well as in the weight room.

"I think it helped us gain a lot of confidence, and showed each of us in our own heart where we wanted to go," Ridnour said. "Working hard in the off-season rubbed off on each player. If we were supposed to be good, we had to work hard."

Nor did it hurt that the football team came close to competing for the national championship before finishing second behind Miami in the polls.

"That's always there, you're competing with different teams in your own school," Jones said. "Football did such a great job this year, so we didn't want to be the team that didn't hold up our end of the stick."

In truth, it is what Kent envisioned when he returned to his alma mater in 1997 after six years at St. Mary's, the last in which he led that little California school to the NCAA tournament.

The fastbreak style of play the Ducks use - think Loyola Marymount, but with defense - came with Kent from St. Mary's.

"It's a style that's very attractive for people to come and watch; it's a style that we can really recruit to," Kent said. "It's a style that in this day and age, young people have bought into because everybody has the opportunity to score."

Even the goalie.

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