Oregon's Ernie Kent: Coach of the Year?
It wasn't so long ago that Ernie Kent's future in Oregon was in doubt. After an almost decade long tenure with the Ducks, many questions were raised after a less than mediocre 15-18 overall record and 7-11 in conference play for the 2005-2006 season. Expectations were as high last season as they have ever been at Oregon, having one of his most talented recruiting classes ever with the likes of Malik Hairston and Bryce Taylor in their second season, and Aaron Brooks back for his third. But the bitter disappointment of the team's under-performance last season left Kent’s job in doubt heading into the 2006-2007 season.
The Ducks, however, answered their critics early in the season by winning 18 or their first 19 games, including 13 straight wins to start the season, their best start in 80 years. The early start was especially impressive considering Malik Hairston, last season's leading scorer was injured and did not play in ten of the first fifteen games for the Ducks. At the height of it all was the big win over previous number-one ranked UCLA earlier in January. The Ducks handed the Bruins their first loss of the season and Ernie Kent was reduced to tears after the emotional win saying, "This is a together basketball team. Their spirit is unbelievable." The Ducks followed that victory with tough wins over previously 10th ranked Arizona and Washington St., validating their early season success and giving the Ducks a shot at the PAC-10 title. Nobody predicted that this team would be any better than a .500 team and a possible NIT invitee at the beginning of the season, now Ernie Kent has them looking like a possible three or four seed in the NCAA Tournament.
So why should Ernie Kent be considered a serious candidate for National Coach of the Year? Quite simply, he has been able to bring together a uniquely talented group of individuals into a team that has begun to reach its full potential. Remember, this is essentially the same group of players he had last season that finished 15-18. With five games left on the schedule as of today, the 20-5 overall record so far this season is already five wins better than last years win total. Statistically, the Ducks are averaging 77.3 ppg while allowing only 66.5 ppg, a +10.8 point differential. More than double the 4.2 point differential of last season.
Another big reason why Ernie Kent should garner heavy consideration for Coach of the Year is how he has been able to get his players to respond this season. Aaron Brooks (who almost didn’t come back to Oregon this season) is averaging close to seven points more than he did last year while Bryce Taylor is averaging almost six points more. Last but not least, the recruitment of little known three-star recruit Tajaun Porter from Detroit, MI who is averaging 13.1 ppg as a freshman is another major reason why the Ducks are so much better this year.
Down the stretch, at least four or five solid candidates will emerge as front-runners for Coach of the Year like every year. Billy Donovan, Bo Ryan, and Roy Williams and Thad Matta should garner a lot of attention. But with respect to those great coaches, their teams are supposed to be in the top ten. Todd Lickliter (Butler) and Tony Bennett (Washington State) will also garner attention, but at the end of the day Oregon will end up the best of these teams. What Kent has been able to accomplish this year, with essentially the same underachieving group he had last season, is no small feat and worthy of Coach of the Year honors.