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Ducks unlimited for the moment in Pac-10, to Southern California's chagrin

With success in football and a shiny new basketball palace, Oregon supplants USC and UCLA in major campus sports, a hard-to-fathom notion to those who assume and demand that focus should stay here.

January 14, 2011|Bill Dwyre

It's hard to duck the obvious these days. Oregon is the current 500-pound gorilla in the Pac-10.

For the moment, the power in major sports has headed northwest. Pete Carroll was cutting edge, and we didn't even see it.

Those of us in egocentric, population-centric, movie-star-centric Southern California need to call a trend a trend. The Pac-10 currently does not revolve around us, as we have assumed and demanded forever.

Yes, this too shall pass, ideally with the quickness of Coach Chip Kelly's spread offense. But we need to brace ourselves for the current reality (take a deep breath here): USC and UCLA are scrambling just to keep up with the big boys in Eugene. We are Los Angeles. For us, being king of the hill, top of the heap, has always been more than song lyrics. We have treated it like our birthright.

Oregon, for the most part, was a nice place to go for high school hotshots who owned their own track shoes. We got Heisman trophies and John Wooden, they got Steve Prefontaine. That was the axiom. Things go in cycles, but our cycles always seemed longer than theirs.

The most glaring part of the reality was right there Monday night, in a huge stadium in Glendale, Ariz., at least half filled with people wearing lots of green and yellow as millions watched on TV and reached for their sunglasses. The shiny shoes and fluorescent socks worn by the Oregon Ducks merely put an exclamation point on the bright future of this school's football program.

Yes, they lost the BCS title game to the big, bad Auburn Tigers. But the 22-19 final score remains a job well done, and Kelly's Team Blur, masters at running plays faster than most teams can run their mouths, appears ready to find yet another gear in 2011. The winning team's star, Cam Newton, had a year of eligibility left but was about as likely to use it as Rick Neuheisel is to wear a cardinal-colored tie. He declared for the NFL draft Thursday night, Auburn announced. Oregon's star, LaMichael James, has already announced he is coming back.

The last time either USC or UCLA beat Oregon in football was 'SC's 44-10 win in 2008. That was, of course, before the departure to the NFL of Coach Cut-and-Run. Now, 'SC struggles under the thumb of the NCAA, giving daily penance for the sins of Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo — as well as its own administrative arrogance — and UCLA and Neuheisel struggle just to figure it out.

If facilities matter, we might be trailing there too. Oregon football has loud and shiny Autzen Stadium. Opposing teams should be given a choice of playing there or having a root canal. We've got them on tradition in the history and wonders of the Coliseum and Rose Bowl. But these days, one fears that recruits like shiny and new more than places holding the memories of their fathers and grandfathers.

It's more than just football.

Thursday night, in front of a crowd just a few shy of its 12,541 capacity, Oregon's sparkling new Matthew Knight Arena held its first Pac-10 basketball game. The price tag has been estimated at $200 million, making it the most expensive on-campus basketball arena in the U.S.

It has been built to appear like the front gate of the Oregon campus, right off Interstate 5. It is named after the late son of Phil Knight. Matthew Knight died at 34 in 2004 in a scuba-diving accident.

Phil Knight, of course, is the cofounder of Nike. It is no secret that a large check accompanied his ability to put his son's name over the front door.

Before this new arena, Oregon played its basketball games at McArthur Court, a place about as friendly to visiting teams as a rattlesnake pit. Now, as former pro golfer and prominent Ducks booster Peter Jacobsen said, "We have gone from Mac Court to Matt Court."

Fittingly, into this newest duck blind for the opener Thursday night stepped Kevin O'Neill's USC basketball team. Always nice to have new light bulbs and fresh wax on the floor for an ambush. Final score: Oregon 68, USC 62. Gee, what a surprise.

Saturday, Ben Howland's UCLA Bruins will serve as a second helping of fresh meat in the Matt.

Ah, timing.

It's not as if Oregon's men's basketball team is a similar amazing blur to its football brethren. The dribbling Ducks are 8-9 overall, 1-4 in the conference. USC is 10-7, 2-2. UCLA will visit Matt Court 10-6, 2-2. Ambush No. 2 would not be unheard of.

The Ducks certainly weren't Duke last season when they swept both the Trojans and Bruins. Now, they are an ordinary team with the edge of playing in an extraordinary new arena. Visitors beware.

There is no denying it. The center of the Pac-10 major sports universe has shifted north and west. We shall assume it is temporary. Here in Los Angeles, in God We Trust. Also, in Pat Haden and Dan Guerrero.

Still, just in case this goes on for a while, keep in mind that there are areas where they will never be able to touch us.

Such as tennis.

Rest well with that thought.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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