Ducks declare they belong among elite

Sports commentary

The party’s over.

Just when the NCAA pool was beginning to overflow with Duck fanatics from sea to shining sea, the Kansas Jayhawks pulled the plug on all the fun — one of only nine teams to do so all season.

By drowning the always-buoyant Duck Express with their own style of run-and-gun basketball — not to mention battering them on the boards by a margin of 61-31 — the Jayhawks earned their first trip to the Final Four since 1993.

Sure, it stings a bit for Duck fans to see such a magnificent season come to a close, but think of it this way: If Kansas goes on to win the title, the Duck Nation can take consolation in the fact that their team lost to the eventual champ (as a long-time competitor, I can say that this truly does offer some solace).

However, I know I won’t be the first to say that the Ducks have nothing to hang their heads about. Winning the Pac-10 title and qualifying for the tournament is an accomplishment in itself. Earning a two-seed and proving they were worth it by launching themselves into the Elite Eight is a major achievement.

Ernie Kent and his boys learned a lot this year. They learned how to win close games — take Friday’s last-second scramble against Texas, for example. They learned how to win on the road (beating USC and UCLA back-to-back in Southern California showed tremendous resolve). They learned how to come from behind, winning almost as many left-for-dead games as their football counterparts.

But most of all, the Ducks learned that if a team plays with heart and buys into a system, it can achieve anything.

Sure, it helped to have the all-star trio of Freddie Jones, Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson leading the charge. But this season was a team triumph. Anthony Lever, Kris Kristensen, Robert Johnson, Chris Christofferson and company all had just as much to do with this team’s arrival among the elite in college basketball.

Winning six out of nine against ranked opponents — twice beating conference foes Arizona, USC and UCLA — was no fluke either. This team will be back next year. And it will be as fired up as ever to defend its Pac-10 title.

Even if the Ducks don’t take home the conference hardware, they’re beginning to understand that it’s all about getting there — to the tournament, that is. Kansas knows it. Maryland knows it. Duke knows it (but blew it). The reality is, if you have a ticket to dance, no one can take away your one-in-64 chance.

But the hardest part of the tournament for most players and fans is the extreme highs and lows. One night your team wins on a buzzer-beater; the next, it loses by a truckload. No one said the Big Dance was all punch and cookies. Sometimes the aftertaste is unbelievably bitter. Oregon gave it all they had and chipped away at the field of 64 to wind up with a one-in-eight chance.

As Maryland, Oklahoma, Indiana and Kansas will tell the young Ducks, a chance is all they’re playing “four.” The Ducks have had a taste. Next year they’ll be ready for the buffet.

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