Team preview: Oregon

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Oregon played its first basketball game on Jan. 24, 1903, with Charles Burden's boys falling to Oregon State, 32-2. Since that inauspicious debut, the program has enjoyed varying degrees of success and lack thereof.

Quick. What team do you think won the first-ever NCAA Tournament, way back in 1939? It was the Ducks, baby. From that great height, the program gradually declined and was all but frozen out of the NCAAs, appearing in but a single tournament from 1961 to 1999.

Overall, the Ducks have been solid, while certainly not spectacular, winning 53 percent of more than 2,500 games.

And what exactly is the point of this history lesson?

Ernie Kent is entering his tenth season with Oregon. He has guided the Ducks to three NCAA Tournaments, including an Elite Eight run in 2002, and won nearly 60 percent of his games. He is without debate the most successful coach at Oregon in six decades, if not ever.

So this guy should more or less own Eugene, right? Lifetime contract, beloved by the fans and media alike, given the benefit of the doubt for a two-year transition period, considering it wasn't long ago the Ducks had a five-year stretch that included three NCAA berths, a Pac-10 regular season title, a Pac-10 Tournament crown and a NIT Final Four effort.

Not so much.

It's hard to say with certainty just how close Kent was to losing his job last season, whether the team's improbable run in the Pac-10 Tournament -- which concluded in the semifinals with a double-overtime loss to Cal -- earned him another season. The last two years, which included some alleged personal issues that became public, Kent has been maligned to say the least, with some fans cranking up websites in hopes of Oregon dumping him. Some in the media agreed and even speculated about the possibility of Gonzaga coach Mark Few as a replacement.

Fact is, while the record may not indicate such, the Ducks were an improved team last season -- fewer turnovers, better rebounding, higher free throw percentage and against a tougher non-conference schedule -- compared with 2004-05. Come this winter, some around the conference think Oregon will be in the Pac-10 mix with the likes of Arizona, UCLA and Washington.

"I see Oregon as a team with a lot of talent, and they could really blast out of the gates and take off this season," Oregon State coach Jay John said.

And while the talent is there for such a run, Oregon must first figure out how to win close games.

Over the last two seasons, the Ducks have lost 16 games by three or less points, including eight in 2005-06. And that doesn't even include that killer of a double-overtime 91-87 defeat to Cal in the Pac-10 semis.

"It's a combination of mental and physical, I mean, we look at the tapes for hours and there's nothing you can really do, I think that maturity goes a long way in close games and this year, we're ready to turn that corner," Kent said. "Those are games we're going to win this year."

"Last year was a tough one for us, considering the close losses, and all that was written, about how the team quit on me. I never lost that team. Never.

"This was a team still finding itself and they kept coming back from those tough defeats last season, and a lot of younger teams don't go that route. They pack it in. What we did in the Pac-10 Tournament, beating Washington, almost making the finals; that showed what kind of team this was."

This season, however, statistical improvement, gutsy losses and a late-season surge won't be enough. The Ducks return their top four scorers and eight players that started at least 11 games last season. It's time for Oregon to deliver.

"On paper, this is the best team we've had since the Elite Eight group in 2002," Kent said.

Keep in mind that the 2002-03 squad won 23 games and the Pac-10 Tournament.