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Some Thoughts on Basketball

I realize that I haven't posted a lot lately, for reasons that I have already explained.  However, I wanted to take the time to express some thoughts on basketball season.  In all fairness, I have watched fewer than half of the conference games this season.  Its not that I don't care--I have been through seasons far worse than this, and my support has never wavered.  Its simply that I'm too cheap to get TIVO, a decision that I'll be seriously considering changing before next season rolls around.

But, in annual tradition, we see some calling for Ernie's head.  There is no doubt that the team has under performed this season--this is a senior laden team that was ranked #13 going into the season.  The grim reality is that it will take a run in the conference tournament to even make the NCAAs.  The problems are obvious--no point guard and lack of defensive toughness.  But, even moreso, a big problem has been that this team has no offensive identity.  An Oregon game right now looks like a pickup game of ratball.  The offensive strategy seems to be to jack up threes with reckless abandon.  In spite of that, Oregon is staying with teams--they've only really been blown out once in conference.  But they've been unable to finish.  And its largely because they have no overall strategy.  And they are showing that while your talent can keep you in a game playing like this, you're going to get burned down the stretch when you really need to maximize your possessions (especially when you don't play a whole lot of defense).

The bottom line is that this lack of a plan falls on the coach.  I believe that if you caught EK in a moment of candor, he would tell you that he hasn't done a great job this year.  I've been a staunch EK defender, but the bottom line is that the most talented recruiting class in all likelihood will have gone to a total of one NCAA tournament.  I don't need to tell you that's disappointing.

But the million-dollar question is should it cost EK his job?

This is where I really struggle.  Would I like to be in the NCAA tournament 80% of the time?  You bet I would.  Should the current talent level of this team get us there?  I believe that the answer is yes.  Would we have this level of talent without EK?  That is an unequivocal no.  His critics will say he hasn't won enough games.  His defenders will say he's the best coach in school history (other than perhaps Howard Hobson), that he's built this program into what it is, and that he's a superb recruiter.

And the truth is that both sides are right.  He hasn't won enough games given his talent.  But he's also largely a victim of his own success and of not living up to expectations that wouldn't even be here if it weren't for him.  And here's the biggest reason that I struggle with the issue of EK.  One of the things that has been really cool about Oregon is the consistency.  Our football coach is Mike Bellotti.  Our basketball coach is Ernie Kent.  And that's the way its been here for well over a decade.  They've both had their ups and downs, but, ultimately, they're both ours.  Every school has a way of doing things.  For example, Indiana does things by the book.  Its why Kelvin Sampson was fired.  And Oregon stands by its coaches.  If the University really wanted to fire Kent of Bellotti, they've had ample opportunity to do both.  And a certain segment of the fan base has been asking for the heads of both multiple seasons.  But they are like family, and we have stood by them.  In fact, I can only think of two coaching firings the whole time I have followed the Ducks (Jody Runge and Martin Smith), and both of those were for off field issues (for any women's basketball fans, Bev Smith has been 10x the underachiever that EK ever has, and the University has stood by her as well).  

A lot of that has to do with history, as outside of the past decade or so, we don't have a whole lot of success.  And these two coaches have taken us to our greatest heights.  Us fans who are a little older feel like we owe them a lot for that, and tend to be less critical.  Many newer Duck fans tend to have that SEC mentality.  If we don't win EVERY year, we've got to go out and find a coach who will.  I've always hated that mentality, as I feel that it just brings college sports to the same level as pro sports as far as turnover goes, and really robs the program of its identity.  Some would forego that for more wins.  And the situation regarding the departure of Bill Moos and the hiring of Pat Kilkenny signals that a change in that attitude is in process.

I admit, I'm caught somewhat in the middle.  EK's done so much for us that I want to have his back.  And right now, I do.  I would never advocate EK's dismissal this offseason.  But what if the team disappoints again next year?  But, then again, what if they don't?  And is this inconsistency acceptable (or even maintainable) over the long term?  As I've said, I struggle with that.  I can, however, tell you what the reality is.

Regardless of how this season ends, EK will be on the hot seat again next year.  It will be a tough schedule (obviously not finalized yet, but we are in the always tough Maui Invitational).  And we will have a lot of freshmen.  If we make the NCAAs, EK sees the opening of the new arena.  If we don't, EK will be dismissed, and a new coach will be hired.  I'm not advocating this--it just appears to me that this is Kilkenny's line of thinking (Kilkenny appears to be a big change of thinking from the Moos era).

I guess I'll sum up my thoughts this way.  I have doubt that EK is the man to get us to the level of perennial contender.  But what he has done for our hope and expectations is beyond our wildest dreams when we first hired him.  Hopefully, we win big next year rendering all this moot.  But, if the day does come that EK is let go, there will be a lot of sadness.  When I think of Oregon basketball, his face is the image that pops into my mind.  Pretty much since I remember starting to watch the Ducks, that's just the way its always been.  And regardless of how this whole thing ends, one should always look back on Ernie's time here with a smile.  Yes, there has been some bad.  But Elite Eights, new arenas, Pac-10 Titles, and four first round draft picks would not have happened here without him.  Maybe that's reason to keep him around long term, and maybe its not.  But regardless of which side of the fence you lie on, what EK has done here should be looked upon with reverence.  His success has made it possible to even have this conversation.