Portland's Terrence Jones won a national title, but he had to leave the state to do it.
Kentucky's victory Monday night to claim the national championship marks the end of another college basketball season. Not lost on this Oregonian was the fact that two Oregon kids--Terrence Jones and Kyle Wiltjer, were on that Kentucky roster. Much has been written in recent years about the inability of the Ducks and Beavers to keep the top in-state talent (Landen Lucas' commitment to Kansas is the most recent example), and the general consensus is that this is something that Oregon and Oregon State must do before they can be consistently relevant.
There is also a general question as to the interest in college basketball in this state. Historically, its been a very good state for college basketball. The Ducks have won a national championship in mens basketball, not football, and if you go back a couple decades, Mac Court was a far hotter ticket than Autzen Stadium. The Beavers were a national power under Ralph Miller, so good that despite 20 years of ineptitude, they still rank in the top ten all time for wins. The Far West Classic was among the premier event in all of college basketball. Portland even hosted a Final Four.
However, I've seen none of that buzz or enthusiasm recently. Yes, the football success in this state has overshadowed the other programs. And the fact remains that Oregon hasn't seen the NCAA Tournament in five years; Oregon State in over 20. The Far West Classic is long dead, and the Oregon schools have had trouble bringing in elite non-conference teams, even to the Rose Garden. While Oregon was able to get Duke, Illinois, and Kansas to come to the Rose Garden, the Portland event was also marred with teams like Marshall, San Diego, and Nebraska, and the game ultimately died.
I remember that Oregon/Kansas game at the Rose Garden in 2002. The Garden was sold out, as two top-12 teams squared off in a rematch of the previous year's Elite Eight matchup. A total of four lottery picks played in that game, with Luke and Luke netting 26 and 25 as #6 Oregon pulled out the victory. It was a better atmosphere at the Garden than any Blazer game I've ever been to, and rivaled the Mac Court environment despite being a cavernous NBA arena.
The diehard Duck fans that are regulars on this blog mostly follow Oregon basketball. But what makes Oregon Football special is that its something everyone in the state gets into, whether they went to school in Eugene or not. The vast majority of my students are Oregon football fans, but their favorite college basketball teams are Kentucky and Duke and North Carolina. College basketball is never talked about on the sports radio shows, which seem to be a fairly good gauge of what people want to talk about. I get the feeling that the vast majority of adults just don't care. CBI and NIT appearances don't capture the minds of a state.
So what is the potential for college basketball in this state? Certainly, Oregon football will always be top dog, but can college basketball reclaim the status it once had? What will it take for there to be that 'buzz'? Does Oregon need to be a consistent tourney team? Do they need to be something more? Would it help if Oregon State were good as well? What is the ceiling, and what needs to be done to get there?