What's wrong on the 'Oregon Trail'?

It wasn't long ago that the ‘Oregon Trail' was one of the tougher road trips in the Pac-10. It was just a few years ago that the Ducks were a top-10 program and the Beavers were pesky enough to give teams a scare. The trip is still full of pitfalls, but at this early stage both Oregon and Oregon State have to be considered slight disappointments in the Pac-10.

Both Oregon schools had a lot of high hopes for the season. Jay John had people talking about basketball again in Corvallis after a solid season last year where the Beavers finished fifth in the Pac-10. The Ducks were the conference's biggest disappointment last season, but Ernie Kent had a young team coming back and with the return of Malik Hairston, things were looking up in Eugene.

Heading into this weekend the two teams were tied for seventh in the conference with a 1-2 mark. Only the hard luck Sun Devils had a worse record in conference at 0-4. Combined the two squads were 15-14.

Last year the Ducks inexplicably finished ninth in the Pac-10 and failed to make the Pac-10 Tournament. This year hopes were high. They returned most of their line-up and Ivan Johnson de-committed from Cincinnati and headed west to bolster the frontline.

Things started off just fine for the Ducks. Against lesser competition they built up a 4-0 record. One of those wins was 60 point win over Savannah State. The schedule got tougher after that, but the Ducks did not. They found themselves at 4-3 after consecutive losses to Vanderbilt, Georgetown and a 30-point thrashing by Illinois.

Things got really bleak around Christmastime when the Ducks lost back-to-back games against Portland and Portland State.

Despite the fact that the Ducks have as much backcourt talent as anyone in the league, the team just can't get over the hump. Malik Hairston has NBA talent, Aaron Brooks is among the best point guards in the game and honestly Bryce Taylor should be referred to in the same breath as the best two guards in the league.

Instead Hairston is a good, but not great swingman and Taylor is struggling to average double figures in scoring.

The Ducks were thin up front, but things got worse when Maarty Leunen hurt his ankle against Stanford and Ernie Kent suspended Johnson for an unspecified amount of time.

"He needs to stay in tune with what we're doing so that when he does come back he won't hold us up and he won't be behind," Kent told the Oregonian. "And more so for me right now it's an evaluation process to see if he understands and comprehends what we're talking about, what we need for him to do and everything."

In the end it may be time to take a long look at Kent. He took the Ducks from the bottom of the Pac-10 and had them in the Elite Eight just four years ago, but since then they have struggled. He has been able to recruit well, but has had to kick players out of the program and has failed to maximize the recent talent he has been able to bring in, which is surprising since he had developed three Duck players into first round draft picks.

Maybe the biggest cause for concern is the fact that local prep standout Kevin Love is not currently considering the Ducks, even though his father Stan was a standout for the team. It is one thing not to land a player of his stature, it is quite another to not even get a sniff from a player with great ties to the program.

The situation at Oregon State is a lot less perplexing. Jay John has done a great job in his two years at Corvallis, so much so that maybe expectations were just a tad too high. Last year he guided the Beavers to the second round of the Pac-10 Tournament and a spot in the N.I.T. Despite losing some key players, including the team's best player in David Lucas, folks thought maybe the Beavers could continue to climb the Pac-10 ranks.

It is far too early to write off the Beavers, but they have had bad losses to the likes of Tennessee Tech, Portland and Northwestern State. Of course they also beat Georgia, UNLV and in their last game they handed Cal their first conference loss.

One frustration for the Beaver faithful has been the play of Nick Dewitz and Sasha Cuic. Neither are playing poorly, in fact both average more than 11 points a game, but neither has made the leap into star player. Dewitz especially looked like he had the potential to be a top-five performer in the conference at the end of last season.

In reality, the Beavers are probably a year away from even sniffing the NCAA Tournament. They have enough talent that the N.I.T. is a possibility but there are a number of second division teams in the Pac-10 who can say the same thing.

Despite the recent struggles, the Oregon trip is not an easy one. Even when the two programs have been a lot worse off than they are now they have given some very good Wildcat teams fits. That being said, a sweep this weekend is not only a realistic possibility, bit a probability if the Cats stay focused.


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