Oregon trying to bounce back from dismal year

Originally Published: October 25, 2005
By Ed Graney | Special to ESPN.com

First things first: It was just a marketing slogan. A way to create interest. A few words on a poster. A phrase meant more to honor the past than the present, to remember those who dribbled before, rather than demand greatness from a bunch of wide-eyed freshmen with mad skills and minimal know-how.

It really wasn't supposed to be that big a deal. Or at least everyone says so.

"It was a little over the top," Bryce Taylor admits. "It was a little overblown."

Expectations often turn merciless when reality sets in, and no college basketball team knows this better than Oregon. Last season, the Ducks anticipated continuing what had been a notable run under coach Ernie Kent -- five postseason berths, a Pac-10 title, an NCAA Elite Eight, two NIT Final Fours, three first-round NBA draft picks -- with a roster dominated by young but talented first-year players such as McDonald's All-Americans Taylor and Malik Hairston.

School officials dubbed the 2004-05 edition the "Team of the Century." Oregon then finished 14-13 overall and 6-12 in the conference, numbers more sobering than a vision of Dr. Ruth in spandex.

It wasn't even "Team of the Northwest."

"What a lot of people don't understand is that the whole 'Team of the Century' thing came from it being the 100th basketball team in [school history] and we sort of piggybacked onto that," Kent said. "At the same time, we had a group of players who set the bar very high for themselves. And even through all the adversity, they continued to bounce back every single game, every single practice. That was huge. They didn't even realize the growth that was taking place."

Maybe because they didn't talk enough or were just plain too tired?

You know a lack of communication was a major issue when they all say how much better the communication is now.

You know conditioning wasn't a priority when they all say how much better conditioned they are now.

It was a difficult period that spared no one, Kent included. He is entering a ninth season running the program he played for and cherishes, but faced hardships both on and off the court last year. He envisioned a team with great possibility, plans that were severely compromised when he dismissed center Ian Crosswhite from the program 19 games into the season.

Just last week, Crosswhite -- now playing professionally in his native Australia -- acknowledged to a newspaper there that the action came as a result of his testing positive for marijuana three times. He was apparently high on something most of last season, just not his relationship with Kent or what he terms the "me, me, me" attitude of his young teammates.

Then there was the coach's summer statement -- about the time the university re-announced a five-year rollover contract extension amid rumors his job security was approaching life support -- about "difficult times" he and his family continued to work through but how none of them had impacted the basketball program. The whole thing was more bizarre than a November day in Eugene without showers.

"I think as things got rougher for [Kent], he wanted to make sure his communication with us as players was his No. 1 concern," said Taylor, a 6-5 guard who averaged 11.6 points last season. "It just wasn't as good as it could have been last season. As the problems became more personal for him, I think everything brought him back to earth a little more. His relationship with us is a lot better now.

"I definitely think we'll be more prepared to handle things this season. We'll be far more mentally tough for the whole experience of last year. We'll be much better for it."

How can't they be? Senior Day this past March included no seniors, so Oregon honored a pair of team managers and a retiring Pac-10 official. Everyone returns from a team that lost five conference games by eight or fewer points. Kent still has the biggest Pac-10 team and maybe the fastest. He has players who now know what it's like to play at Arizona and Stanford and UCLA and so on. He has a junior point guard (Aaron Brooks) who spent much of his summer watching film of NBA star Steve Nash and what it means to make intelligent decisions with the ball.

Overnight, the Ducks are capable of going from not qualifying for the conference tournament back into a mix of the league's top four teams. Or perhaps better.

Do you remember the freshman season of former Oregon stars Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson? The Ducks went 14-14.

The next season: Elite Eight.

"Last season was obviously disappointing, and we've worked really hard over the summer to make sure it never happens again," said Hairston, a talented wing who had averages of 13.1 points and 5.0 rebounds last year. "I think [Kent] handled all the adversity well. Obviously, a lot of it was personal issues we knew nothing about, but I can tell you we always had his back and we always will.

"You know, the whole 'Team of the Century' thing was just a creative idea to try and get the season off on a good note. I'm not sure any of us felt that much more pressure because of it. Who knows? Maybe one day we can become the 'Team of the Century' around here. But we still have a lot of work to do."

And they still have the support of a small army. Oregon hosted a Midnight Madness celebration Oct. 14, one of five schools nationally selected for an ESPNU telecast. At 6:30 that morning, 1,000 students already were lined up in hopes of snagging a prime seat in the popular Pit Crew section.

The anticipation is growing again. The expectations have returned. The faithful still believe.

"Last season humbles you in a sense," Kent said. "It makes you appreciate the great years you have had and all the hard work that it took to get there. At the same time, you realize that sometimes you have to take a step back in order to move forward. This group is so much more focused now, so much better. They know what to expect. Let's get it going."

Maybe this season, results will speak louder than any slogan.

Ed Graney of The San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ed.graney@uniontrib.com.