Ernie Kent is caught at a crossroads of coach-speak. On one hand, the Oregon coach knows he's entering the 2004-05 campaign with an incredibly young team. Four significant contributors graduated last spring, including Luke Jackson, one of a handful of players in the country to lead his team in scoring, rebounds and assists last season.
But replacing those seniors is a freshman class considered one of the best in school history, led by top recruit Malik Hairston of Detroit. And the freshmen enter a program that has reached the postseason five of the last six years and produced three straight first-round NBA Draft picks, most recently Jackson to Cleveland with the 10th selection.
So while Kent expects some growing pains, he fully expects the Ducks to be in contention for a conference title come February.
In fact, he seems a little defensive when asked if the team's youth is a concern.
"When you look at this team, you're talking size and skill level, you're talking the ability to put five guys on the floor that can shoot the 3 at any time," Kent said. "We've got great speed. We've got depth. It's got everything in there that we need; it just needs to grow and mature a little bit."
How long that takes will determine how good the Ducks can be in 2004-05.
FRONTCOURTUp front the Ducks have a finesse player in center Ian Crosswhite and a banger in forward Mitch Platt. Each lost about 20 pounds this offseason, which should allow Platt to play more effective minutes and Crosswhite to become even more potent. "He had a very good year last year; he should have a monster year this year," Kent said of Crosswhite. "When he's in condition and playing at the top of his game, he's unstoppable."
Depth in the post is provided by Matt Short, who is healthy after dealing with injuries last season, as well as redshirt freshman Ray Schafer. A 7-footer from Alaska, Schafer is a stereotypical gym rat, and Kent expects him to provide some offense off the bench.
Backing up Platt are leaper Adam Zahn and heralded in-state recruit Maarty Leunen.
"This could be as versatile a basketball team as I've ever had here," Kent said. "Because I've got the complement of big guys that I didn't have before."
BACKCOURTAaron Brooks took over for Luke Ridnour at point guard as a freshman last season, and the former McDonald's All-American didn't disappoint. But he missed 10 conference games after suffering a broken wrist, delaying his maturation and possibly costing the Ducks an NCAA tournament berth.
The Ducks were abysmal at the point without Brooks. So Kent signed a juco transfer, sophomore Kenny Love, to spell Brooks when he is out.
"We haven't had that kind of depth at that position before, with two pure point guards," Kent said.
Brooks could very well be joined by two freshmen in the starting backcourt. Hairston will be expected to start at one wing, and the other may be manned by Bryce Taylor, another top recruit who was ultimately overshadowed by Hairston.
Hairston will step into Jackson's small forward spot.
"That's his game; that's who he is," Kent said. "He plays just like Luke. He doesn't shoot the ball as well as Luke right now, but he does some other things better. He's a tremendous rebounder, he's a great defender, and his passing is uncanny."
Taylor and fellow freshman Chamberlain Oguchi will join Brooks as Oregon's 3-point threats. Also on the bench are Brandon Lincoln and Jordan Kent, the coach's son who put off a promising track career to focus on basketball.
FINAL ANALYSISKent is big on themes like leadership and character, and said this group has bonded well. Crosswhite and Brooks will provide the veteran leadership, and Kent hopes his freshmen mature quickly enough that their growing pains don't extend beyond the first few games.
"When it all comes together, we're going to be just as competitive as anybody else in the Pac-10," Kent said. "There's no question about it. And as competitive as many teams in the country, when it all comes together."