ST. LOUIS – The Luke and Luke Show of four and five years ago brought not only a showtime atmosphere to Oregon basketball, but also one of the most celebrated class of recruits in the program's history in 2004.
Malik Hairston was the headliner, a McDonald's All-American who surprised many by moving to Eugene from Detroit. Bryce Taylor, son of former NBA player Brian Taylor, was another top-50 recruit, and Maarty Leunen and Chamberlain Oguchi were top-100 types. If they didn't make folks forget about the Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson era, they would at least make folks re-live those good times at McArthur Court.
Long before Friday's meeting with UNLV in the Midwest regional's Sweet 16, the members of the class were celebrated around town as the stars that they would become. Billboards went up in their honor. There was a buzz around Eugene. And they proved to be good, too.
Good enough to get beat by six, seven, eight points on many nights out.
The Ducks were 14-13 during the class' freshman season. They were 15-18 a year ago, losing 14 of the 16 games that were decided by eight points or fewer. Something drastic had to be done.
"Basically, we had to take the hype out of the program because there was so much hype when they came in the door," coach Ernie Kent said. "They didn't convert it to understand what it meant to work."
Last fall, Kent ordered that the individual billboards come down. There was one of star guard Aaron Brooks draped along an outside wall of the Ducks' venerable Mac Court. Down.
There was a billboard of Taylor and Oguchi, the 3-point specialists, that stood on top of a bridge in Eugene. Down.
There was another billboard near Eugene that featured big men Leunen and Ray Schafer. Oddly, that one never came down.
"It's a weird deal," Leunen said. "It's out by the airport, and they took out the road with the billboard next to it and put up a new road. So the billboard is still out there, but no one drives by it. It's in the middle of a field where you can't really see it."
In a far less subtle message, Kent also asked the coaches of Oregon's track program to put together a Lance Armstrong-type offseason workout program for the Ducks. They came up with this: Four sets of 400-yard sprints, eight sets of 200-yard sprints and 20 to 25 sets of 100-yard sprints.
All of them run three or four times a week, on top of lifting and individual workouts.
Said Brooks, who believed the Ducks didn't have the mental stamina to fight their fatigue at the end of games: "We were on the track more than the track team."
At first, some of the players believed they were merely being punished for having a poor season. Today, they agree that there's a direct correlation between the workouts and this season's results.
Oguchi said he hopes they go through them again during the upcoming offseason.
"The workouts were pretty brutal," Leunen said. "But as a team, we needed to get mentally tougher and to be able to play in a full 40-minute game. If we can do all that on the track and get through it, what's a 40-minute game going to do to you?"
Not much, apparently. This season, the Ducks are 13-4 in games decided by eight points or fewer, including a seven-point win at Georgetown, a two-point victory over then-No. 1 UCLA, another two-point win against a No. 10 Arizona, an overtime victory over a No. 20 Washington State and a five-point win against a ninth-ranked Cougars squad.
This Oregon team no longer invites comparisons to the Luke and Luke Show.
"That (Luke and Luke) team was showtime and beating people by 20 and 30," Kent said. "This team has a more tough, grind-it-out mentality. Their games are all so close. They're more battle-tested. They're more grit."
They are Oregon's Ducks now, without even a billboard photo to show for it.