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Friday, March 22, 2013
Oregon, Saint Louis in unfamiliar territory

By Ted Miller

SAN JOSE -- On Thursday, three teams playing second-round games in the NCAA tournament in HP Pavilion turned in poised, dominant efforts. They acted, so to speak, like they'd been there before. One of them, Syracuse, has. A lot. The other two, Saint Louis and Oregon, have not.

If Saint Louis, the fourth seed in the Midwest, beats No. 12 Oregon, it will play in the program's first Sweet 16. The Ducks' pedigree, despite winning the first NCAA tourney in 1939, isn't much better, at least not lately. The Ducks had an Elite Eight run in 2007 but hadn't won a tournament game since. Their regular-season record from 2009-10 and 2010-11 was 32-33.

So this is mostly unexplored territory for these players and programs.

Jim Crews
Jim Crews took over as Saint Louis' coach when the Billikens lost Rick Majerus.
Saint Louis junior Dwayne Evans, the Billikens' leading scorer and rebounder, took a leap of faith three years ago that Rick Majerus was going to lead the program away from prolonged mediocrity.

"Saint Louis basketball really wasn't on the map, even [in] Saint Louis," he said.

The compelling angle, of course, is that Saint Louis has posted its greatest season after tragedy, as Majerus took a medical leave from the program in August and then died of heart failure on Dec. 1. Jim Crews took over. After a meandering start, the Billikens got hot. Their 28 wins is the most in program history. They entered the tournament ranked 13th in both major polls, having been in the polls for four consecutive weeks, which hadn't happened since 1993-94.

Saint Louis beat Memphis in the second round last year before falling to Michigan State. And, unlike Oregon, this is a veteran team that's seen a lot of action together.

"Last year, we were kind of wide-eyed and just kind of there for the experience, and obviously we were taking on the No. 1 seed, Michigan State.  I think there were some nerves there," Evans said. "But this year we're a confident, veteran team. We know how good we can be.  And we have bigger goals than making it to the round of 32."

Of course, the Ducks played like a cohesive, veteran unit while upsetting Oklahoma State and All-American guard Marcus Smart. While the Ducks start a pair of freshmen and are transfer heavy, they're a hot, confident team, coming off an impressive run through the Pac-12 tournament.

The Ducks, notorious for their baffling 12th seed, still have something to prove. A Sweet 16 run would prove it.

"Yeah, that would be huge for us, to get more respect," senior center Tony Woods said. "A lot of people didn't predict us to win the game last night.  That was big for us, getting respect.  We never cared about the 12-seed, we're just happy to be here, happy to stay alive and keep playing."

In order to keep playing, one team will need to dictate the tempo. Oregon likes to run in transition. Saint Louis can run but prefers more half-court sets. Saint Louis isn't very good at rebounding but protects the ball. Oregon is prone to turnovers but is fantastic on the boards. Both teams play good defense. Neither team is terribly good behind the 3-point arc.

Saint Louis will like its chances if the Billikens keep the game low-scoring. Oregon would like to inject a bit of frenzy into the evening.

"They do not give up easy baskets.  They know what they want from every possession," Oregon coach Dana Altman said. "It's about as veteran a team as we played.  The most veteran team we've played all year ... They have a little better idea what they want out of a possession.  So we've got to try to get a few more possessions going.  We've got to try to open the floor a little bit.  I think at some positions our athletes can make a difference, if we can get them out in the open court."

Both teams are on the cusp of a special season for their program. But they need to win Saturday to make it happen.