By George Schroeder
March 03, 2010

The words came tumbling from his mouth in a torrent a few weeks ago. Ernie Kent was defending his Oregon basketball program after yet another discouraging loss, and the argument was convincing. Yes, he said, he would get things turned around.

"We know what we're doing, we believe in ourselves, we believe in our system," Kent said. "What I'll ask people to do again is to look back at where we've been and where we've come to.

"We've created an enormous amount of hype for this program, and that hype and that heat is on us right now, and we understand that."

He also understands the situation, because when it comes to Kent and Oregon basketball, there's another argument out there, hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into concrete and steel. And it's winning.

Matthew Knight Arena -- a $200 million palace named for Nike boss PhilKnight's deceased son -- rises a couple of blocks from Oregon's venerable McArthur Court. It's scheduled for completion in time for conference play next season. If it's the house Knight paid for, Kent's teams built it.

But he's not going to coach in it.

No one's saying so yet, but the signs are undeniable. Kent barely survived a year ago, after winning just eight games. The expectations were clear coming into this season: Win. Yet even after victories at USC and UCLA last week, Oregon is 14-14 overall and in last place in the Pac-10 at 6-10 (and keep in mind, the league is as down as it's been in many years).

The Ducks are young, but they're playing the same nucleus from last season, and too often this season, they've stumbled to familiar results. Twice during Pac-10 play, they've lost five straight -- and those streaks sucked the air out of the season.

Which is why Kent has been fending off questions about his job status, and defending the accomplishments of his program. And why the only buzz about Oregon basketball is the sound of heavy machinery and the discussion of who replaces Kent.

From the outside, this might be hard to understand. Oregon is hardly a basketball power, and to the extent the Ducks have been nationally relevant, Kent's teams are the reason.

Here's the resume: He's Oregon's all-time winningest coach. In 13 seasons, he's taken the Ducks to five NCAA tournaments, including two Elite Eights (2002 and 2007) and two NIT Final Fours. The Ducks have won the Pac-10's regular-season championship once and conference tournament twice.

The accomplishments seem modest until you consider the school's meager basketball history, which included a total of five NCAA tournaments before Kent's return to his alma mater. Way back in 1939, Oregon won the inaugural NCAA championship. It has been a basketball backwater almost ever since.

There's more, too. College basketball coaches routinely pay lip service to the college part. But Kent's players graduate, and mostly stay out of trouble, and it's apparent he's made more than basketball a priority; the Ducks lead the Pac-10 in the NCAA's academic progress rate (APR). Earlier this season, he sat junior guard LeKendric Longmire, a solid performer, for six games (including five straight) because Longmire had fallen behind in his studies.

All of which is nice, but it comes down to wins and losses. And for all of Oregon's highs under Kent, there have been alarming lows. His teams are under .500 in Pac-10 play -- 8-26 in the last two seasons.

"Even if we were to leave tomorrow," Kent said after that recent loss, defending the program, "I think you will look back and we have left this program in great shape: the players, the players graduating, the [Pac-10] championship, the Elite Eight, the NBA players, reputation across the country. And we're not done.

"I'm going to ask people again to be patient."

Kent frames the current situation as part of a larger pattern of building and rebuilding. He points to previous teams that struggled as young players took their lumps, and then jelled into big winners as upperclassmen. As freshmen, the nucleus led by Luke Jackson and Luke Ridnour lost 13 of their last 16 games; they later led the Ducks to the Elite Eight. A few years later, another young but talented bunch struggled for a couple of years, but Aaron Brooks, Malik Hairston and company evolved into an Elite Eight squad, as well.

Kent argues that his current team, filled with freshmen and sophomores, will improve and grow into something formidable, like his others did. But when he pleads for patience, there's not much left.

The problem is a familiar one. Kent built the program, and fans' expectations grew along with it. Outgrew it, maybe. Now, the coach has to feed their desire for more success -- and for more consistent success.

More important, the basketball program has to fill the coffers. And if expectations have increased, the financial demands are about to get much bigger, too. The new arena ratchets up the pressure to win.

Like everything when it comes to athletics these days at Oregon, Matthew Knight Arena will feature every imaginable bell and whistle. No doubt, recruits will be impressed by the nation's most expensive college arena (that's part of Kent's pitch to remain; look how he's recruited to Mac Court, and think what he could do with the new place). But someone has to pay for it: the annual debt will run about $16 million.

More than 9,000 fans can fit intimately into Mac Court. When the Ducks are playing well, the 83-year-old bandbox hums and vibrates, a wall of white noise. But the old gym has rarely been filled recently, and the sound you're hearing is the alarms going off in the ticket office, where they're trying to sell seats in the new place -- 3,500 more seats, at higher prices.

The Ducks haven't given fans much reason to show up and make noise -- unless you count talk shows and message boards, where the discussion is about a future without Kent.

That's perhaps the bigger problem: Who's going to replace Kent? The popular choice would be Mark Few, a local boy. But he's shown no inclination to leave what he's built at Gonzaga -- and it was only last year that he turned away interest from Oregon that could easily have become an offer. Insiders say Few considers the job to be a notch below his current gig.

If not Few, the Ducks will still want to make a big splash with the hire, and they'll throw a lot of money at the right guy. But as other schools have seen in recent years, it's not easy to land a big name. The job is better than Few thinks, and Kent is correct: it gets better with the new digs. But it's not a destination job.

The bigger question: Whoever he is, can the next coach match Kent's highs without the lows? It's not at all certain whether anyone can achieve that kind of consistency at Oregon. Nothing in the program's history would indicate it. But they have to try.

It's the price of progress.

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