Oregon coach Ernie Kent will likely feel very appreciated in another team’s arena Tuesday.
That’s when Kent will lead the Ducks in a road game against Saint Mary’s, the school that gave him his first college head coaching job, in a meeting of unbeaten teams.
Kent currently has the Ducks at 4-0 and 11th in the AP poll, but in 1996-97, he led the Gaels (3-0) to their only West Coast Conference title. That squad will be honored prior to Tuesday’s game at a sold-out McKeon Pavilion.
After that season, Kent accepted the Oregon job, and he’s since guided the Ducks to within a game of the Final Four twice. Last season, Oregon lost in the regional finals to eventual national champion Florida.
Despite losing the Pac-10’s leading scorer in Aaron Brooks, Oregon has yet to suffer a defeat this season. The Ducks are coming off an 85-61 road victory over Portland on Saturday that came without starting guard Bryce Taylor (sprained shoulder).
Malik Hairston scored 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting - his third straight game with at least 20 points - and freshman Kamyron Brown had 10 points and 10 assists while filling in for Taylor.
The Ducks led by just two at halftime, but outscored Portland 54-32 in the second half.
“In the first half we weren’t playing with a lot of energy. We weren’t getting rebounds and we weren’t playing very good defense,” senior forward Maarty Leunen said. “So, we learned our lesson and came out and played a lot better in the second half.”
Leunen is averaging 15.3 points - 4.5 better than last season’s average - while 3-point sharpshooter Tajuan Porter is scoring 16.5 per game.
Saint Mary’s, though, should be the Ducks’ toughest opponent yet. The Gaels finished second to Gonzaga in the WCC three straight seasons before a third-place finish in 2006-07, but they’re 3-0 for the first time since the 1995-96 season, under Kent.
Saint Mary’s hasn’t played since beating Cal State Bakersfield 94-66 last Tuesday. Center Omar Samhan, a 6-foot-11 sophomore, had a career-high 25 points on 11-of-15 shooting, and he could create matchup problems for a small Oregon team which has the 6-foot-9 Leunen as its tallest starter.
Samhan is averaging 8.0 rebounds per game, while teammate Diamon Simpson, a 6-7 freshman forward, is pulling down a team-best 8.7 a contest.
A trio of Australian players have also contributed for Saint Mary’s, especially 5-10 freshman point guard Patrick Mills, who has averaged 10.3 points, 5.0 assists, 4.0 steals and just 2.0 turnovers to start his career.
“It’s going to be pretty big time,” Mills said of the Oregon game.
Oregon has won seven of eight against Saint Mary’s, although the teams haven’t played since December 1993, when the visiting Ducks beat Kent’s Gaels 76-70.
The Ducks, who play four WCC teams in their first six games, still have a long way to go before they think about equaling last season’s 13-0 start.