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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Small talk

Oregon and its four-guard offense must try to cut Florida down to size

March 25, 2007|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — Nearly seven decades after Oregon won the first NCAA championship, there is a very different team from Eugene.

Call them the Small Firs.

Tajuan Porter, at 5 feet 6, is the little big man who made eight three-point baskets and scored 33 points against Nevada Las Vegas. And no, he has never heard anything about the 1939 title won by a team known as the Tall Firs.

"I don't really know what you're talking about," the freshman from Detroit said.

Five years after reaching the Elite Eight with a team led by Frederick Jones, Luke Jackson and Luke Ridnour, Oregon is back.

The Ducks face their tallest task yet when they play defending champion Florida in the NCAA Midwest Regional final today in the Edward Jones Dome for a spot in the Final Four.

With Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer, the Gators' front line goes 6-11, 6-10, 6-9.

The Ducks play four guards, and their tallest starter is Maarty Leunen, who is 6-9.

Here is the sort of scene that might unfold, because Florida doesn't hesitate to switch defensive assignments and leave its big men on perimeter players: Noah could end up guarding Porter at least momentarily, creating a matchup where Noah would have a 17-inch advantage and Porter would be like a cat trying to dart past his feet.

"I think it will be a disadvantage to them," Porter said. "We've just got to make smart basketball plays."

Aaron Brooks, Porter's 6-foot partner in the backcourt, agreed.

"I think their big guys are definitely versatile to come out and guard guards," he said. "But we're a little bit quicker on the outside than them. So we could use that as our advantage."

Oregon is accustomed to being at a size disadvantage, but the results indicate the Ducks have done OK. They beat Georgetown on the road, and split with UCLA and Stanford.

The Ducks have taller players on the bench, but 6-10 Mitch Platt and 7-footer Ray Schafer rarely play. Coach Ernie Kent made a decision before the season to go small, and it has worked well for the Ducks, who started 13-0 before losing to USC, then faltered during a late-winter road stretch before recovering to win the Pacific 10 Conference tournament.

"We're not going to change who we are," Kent said. "I mean, we are a team that gets up and down the floor.

"We have to defend," he said. "We've just got to play smart basketball, because if you turn that ball over, you feed into a feeding frenzy in their transition game and that's not where you want to be."

Brooks, a senior, has been the Oregon stalwart much of the season, but others have taken their turns.

Brooks, Porter and Bryce Taylor -- the junior from Harvard-Westlake High, who scored 32 points without missing a shot in the Pac-10 title game against USC -- all have 30-point games this season.

Some are inclined to believe Florida doesn't know much about Oregon because of late West Coast games. But several Florida players begged to differ, among them Brewer, who said he saw plenty of Pac-10 games on FSN.

"I watch FSN when I'm not sleepy, so I've seen them quite a lot," he said. "They're good. Brooks, he's so fast. Porter, he can really shoot the three-pointer, and Bryce Taylor, a lot of people don't know how good he is."

Noah acknowledged he knew less.

"They're really, really short, but they're really fast," he said, but he wouldn't bite on a name-that-state-capital quiz.

"Come on, man. Are you serious?" he said. "I know they've got a big Nike store."

It might be difficult to paint a No. 3-seeded team against a No. 1 as David against Goliath.

But with a mighty mite point guard in Porter -- a player Oregon found in part because was a younger teammate of Malik Hairston's at Detroit's Renaissance High -- the Ducks have their own fan appeal.

"I think America loves a hero, and everybody cheers for the little guy," Kent said, calling Nate Archibald and Spud Webb "some of the great ones."

"And here's a little guy that plays with a big, big heart. And the thing I've told him is, he's a great example for parents who have that little kid in the family that everybody looks at and says, 'You'll never be a basketball player. Play soccer.'

"Well, that's not true. You can be whatever you want to be. I think Tajuan proves that. If you've got a big enough heart and a big enough game, you can play at this level and beyond this level."

robyn.norwood@latimes.com

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Online poll

There were 530 responses to our online poll: Who will win the Midwest Regional?

*--* Oregon 53.8%

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*--* Florida 46.2%

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