Key players returning will provide boost

Updated: January 5, 2007, 4:29 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

OK, so Oregon lost at home Thursday to USC, and Michigan State wasn't able to overtake Iowa on the road. Oh, and Gonzaga got absolutely embarrassed at Virginia on Wednesday.

But just wait until these teams are healthy. What will occur? Well, we're not predicting national championships, Final Four, Elite Eight or even Sweet 16.

All we'll tell you is that these three teams have a shot to clear their ceiling. How high that might be is still an unknown, but the truth is that they've hardly peaked because they're still not healthy.

Malik Hairston
Darryl Dennis/Icon SMIMalik Hairston averaged 15 points and five rebounds last year for the Ducks.
Let's look at Oregon first. The Ducks played five games with Malik Hairston in the lineup. That's five of the first 14 games, of which the Ducks won 13. He's supposed to be the team's best player. Well, you can debate that all you want, but the reality is that Hairston led the Ducks last season with 15 points a game. So you would assume that once Hairston is in the lineup the Ducks will really fly. Well, that's exactly what the Ducks believe. Once Hairston, who's still listed as day-to-day, is back from a rare ligament injury in his ankle (one that normally isn't injured in athletics) then the Ducks would have six legitimate double-digit scorers, including guards Aaron Brooks, Bryce Taylor, Tajuan Porter and Chamberlain Oguchi and forward Maarty Leunen.

"We could be a very, very potent offensive team with seven guys that can shoot the 3 and attack off the dribble," said Oregon coach Ernie Kent, who thinks Churchill Odia is that seventh threat. "We'll get so many more wide-open looks."

Oguchi was banged up with a high ankle sprain and Porter had a turf toe injury.

"I keep telling people that our growth potential is really high," Kent said. "We'll press more. We haven't even hit our offensive rhythm."

Brooks said Hairston's leadership and rebounding will be a must. Taylor said there won't be any chemistry issues once Hairston is back on board, either.

The Ducks have road wins at Rice and Georgetown and beat Nebraska in Portland. Oregon started out league play with a win at Oregon State before the home loss to USC. So the Ducks' best NCAA résumé builder is the win over the Hoyas.

Getting to the Dance is a must for Taylor, Hairston and the rest of Oregon's heralded junior class, which hasn't been to the tourney since it arrived. Oregon has cooled on its promotions of late, with no more billboards in New York (for former Ducks Luke Jackson and Luke Ridnour) or Detroit (for Hairston).

Michigan State hardly is big on self-promotion. But the Spartans aren't afraid to say they're surviving until freshman wing Raymar Morgan returns. Morgan could be the Spartans' most talented player and is out with a right shin stress reaction. He has played in nine of 16 games, averaging 11.7 points (scoring a season-high 18 in wins over Texas and Bradley) and 5.6 rebounds. The Spartans were without Maurice Joseph for a spell, too, but the sophomore guard returned Thursday night against Iowa after missing four games with a stress reaction in his right foot. Joseph came back and played 16 minutes, scoring nine points off the bench.

Raymar Morgan
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonRaymar Morgan should help take some pressure off Drew Neitzel.

What these two players do for the Spartans is simple: They take immense pressure off lead guard Drew Neitzel. Neitzel has done a tremendous job of shouldering the load for the Spartans through the first 16 games, but getting Morgan back to go along with Joseph on the wings means he won't constantly face the box and one like he did a number of times, or be asked to make every big shot.

"We'll be able to pressure and run more," said Neitzel, who is averaging 18.4 points and 4.8 assists and shooting 44 percent from the field, 41 percent on 3s and an eye-popping 90 percent from the free-throw line (63 of 70).

"We don't know our full potential," Neitzel said. "When we had those guys healthy early on, we weren't playing up to our potential yet. Once we get everybody full go again, we'll really succeed."

Neitzel said Joseph and Morgan will open up plenty for him and everyone else because "they're great scorers."

"I don't know if there is a ceiling with this team," Neitzel said. "We're so young but we're gaining confidence."

Add Joseph and Morgan to Neitzel and Travis Walton on the perimeter, and the more than serviceable Goran Suton inside then the Spartans suddenly become a real threat to finish as high as third in the Big Ten. (Sorry, but we're giving the first two spots to Wisconsin and Ohio State.)

Then there are the Zags.

OK, you're probably sick of hearing about Gonzaga and its potential after watching Virginia run the Bulldogs out of the building Wednesday night, 108-87.

Micah Downs
Douglas Jones/Icon SMIMicah Downs should add some punch for Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs will be adding Kansas transfer Micah Downs (broken bone in his left foot) sometime in the next week or so. Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Thursday that Downs won't be available for this weekend's WCC openers against Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine, but he could be ready for next weekend's first league road trip to Santa Clara and Saint Mary's.

What does Downs provide?

"We're going to be adding a McDonald's All-American to our mix, a high-level athlete and that will definitely help," Few said. "It gives us another scorer. So, you could say we've got a trump card coming in. I'm not sure any Top 25 team has that."

The easy argument is to flip it and say that the Zags could use some defense more than another scorer. But the reality is the Zags have had scoring droughts in their recent losses. And, more than anything, Few said the Zags just need to get home. He said he's taking the responsibility for scheduling too many road games in row. He doesn't mind the opponents but playing games against Texas (a win in Phoenix), at Washington State (loss), Washington (win), vs. Georgia in suburban Atlanta (a loss), a continued trip up to New York to play Duke (a loss), back home but over to Seattle to play Nevada (a loss) and then across the country to play Virginia (a loss) was a major mistake.

Earlier in the season, the Zags were in the NIT Season Tip-Off and after beating Rice and Baylor went to New York to beat North Carolina before losing to Butler.

Downs wouldn't have been eligible until mid-December, but he was hurt, making him unavailable for the Georgia-Duke-Nevada-Virginia set of games.

And while Downs won't cure Josh Heytvelt's inadequacies inside or Derek Raivio's struggles in getting free for shots, he'll at least help because he's another option to go along with these two as well as Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin and the role players in the post: Abdullahi Kuso and Sean Mallon.

"What we did, I'm not sure you can play all those games in a row," Few said. "It's a lot to ask young guys to travel like that. We had nothing left in the tank emotionally and physically [in Virginia]."

So the Zags turn to Downs for help. Gonzaga still has two more nonconference games against Memphis and at Stanford but having another scorer, someone else to cover, should help this team reach its potential in the next two months.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com