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Oregon Coach Ernie Kent knew Luke Ridnour was the perfect player to run his high-octane offense the minute Ridnour arrived in Eugene for his official visit as a high school senior three years ago. "When he stepped off the airplane, he was carrying a basketball," Kent says. "That's what I call a pure point guard. I knew right then, he was a gem."
A McDonald's All-American at Blaine (Wash.) High, the 6'2", 165-pound Ridnour was arguably the most heralded recruit in Oregon history, and he hasn't disappointed the Ducks. Last year he became the first Oregon player to be named Pac-10 freshman of the year. This season he's having an even greater impact, leading the No. 13 Ducks—picked in the preseason to finish sixth in the conference—into first place in the league with a 9-2 record (17-5 overall) after last week's home wins over UCLA and USC.
With plenty of offensive firepower ( Oregon led the league in scoring, with 85.5 points a game) and a balanced attack (all five starters were averaging between 8.0 and 16.8 points), the Ducks are one of the season's biggest surprises. Ridnour, confirming Kent's initial assessment, is the player who makes them go on and off the court. "He has elevated our team work ethic," says Kent "He even gets the other players to work out behind my back."
Midway through last season Ridnour rigged the back door to the Ducks' locker room at McArthur Court with tape so it wouldn't lock, making it possible for the players to get into the gym late at night. Kent put the kibosh on that when he discovered it, but he was pleased when the entire team spent last summer in Eugene, where their days began with 8 a.m. workouts and often ended with two-on-two games that lasted until 2 a.m. "When you have everyone playing together all summer, you really bond," Ridnour says.
Through Sunday, all of Ridnour's offensive stats were better than last season's—his scoring had jumped from 7.4 points a game to 14.7, his field goal accuracy from 33.9% to 48.0%—and he was third in the Pac-10 in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.9 to 1) despite playing at breakneck speed. "Coach likes us to make the game fast, but he trusts us to make smart plays," Ridnour says.
Fast-break basketball begins with strong performances on the glass, which Oregon gets from 6'8", 235-pound forward Robert Johnson (7.7 rebounds a game) and 7'2", 300-pound Danish center Chris Christoffersen (5.4). Strong finishers on the wings are essential, too, and there the Ducks have a deadly tandem in 6'4" senior Freddie Jones, their leading scorer, and 6'7" sophomore guard Luke Jackson (15.2 ppg).
A significant home court advantage at raucous McArthur Court, where Oregon was 13-0 through Sunday, has also helped propel the Ducks atop the Pac-10, but can they stay there? Oregon last won a league crown 57 years ago. As for the national title, that drought has lasted even longer. The Ducks won the first NCAA tournament, in 1939, and haven't been back to the Final Four since.
The Pollgate scandal came to a merciful end last week when Utah coach Rick Majerus confessed to having "voted" for Temple for several weeks in the ESPN/ USA Today Coaches' Poll despite the Owls' woeful record (8-12 through Sunday). Majerus, who was removed from the 31-man selection panel, admitted to delegating the task to an assistant coach who obviously hadn't been doing his homework.