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November 16, 2006

Notebook: Oregon's Porter on the scene

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The biggest surprise of the first two weeks of the college basketball season isn't some shocking upset or some unsuspecting mid-major making a deep run in one of the many early tournaments.

It's the spectacular play of a 5-foot-6 freshman point guard from Oregon.

Tajuan Porter opened his college career by scoring 27, 28 and 38 points in three games, which makes him the nation's leading scorer at 31 points per game. His 38-point outburst against Portland State topped Oregon's freshman scoring record by seven points.

Porter has done most of his damage from 3-point range, hitting 21 of 33 attempts (62 percent) - including a school-record 10 of 12 against Portland State (one of those makes was a 65-foot heave at the halftime buzzer).

"I'm in the zone," Porter told Rivals.com. "I know because I wasn't even really conscious of what I was doing or how many 3-pointers I made. I was just trying to knock down every shot, but I never shot the ball this well in high school."

It's Porter's high school status that makes his feats all the more remarkable. Porter arrived at Oregon (3-0) with little hype or expectations. A three-star recruit from Detroit, his signing last November created little buzz or fanfare. The diminutive floor general wasn't listed on any preseason freshman All-American teams.

Porter said he is used to skeptics, which has helped make the transition to the college level so easy.

"There's always been a lot of doubters, even coaches from other teams," he said. "It doesn't matter how tall you are. Knowing that I'm short, I've always looked for ways to still be able to get my shot off my whole life. It's just basketball. It's not that hard. If you can play basketball then you can play. I just love the game of basketball."

Oregon coach Ernie Kent and his staff learned that three years ago. That's when they first started showing interest in Porter, while the guard was playing with Oregon junior Malik Hairston at Renaissance High in Detroit. Hairston, a five-star prospect and perhaps the highest-profile recruit in Ducks history, and Porter led the school to a 2004 state title.

Major programs like Florida State, Memphis, N.C. State and Tennessee showed late interest in Porter - who had a quadruple-double (points, rebounds, assists and steals) in high school. Porter decided to choose the Ducks because of their loyalty.

"They were always there recruiting me," Porter said after committing to the Ducks in September. "They were there long before anyone else really was. They wanted me more than I wanted them at first. I felt like they needed me and not wanted me. A lot of others came in and got in my ear, but they really made me feel like I was needed there."

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Kent saw intangibles in Porter that made him believe he could overcome his lack of size. The Ducks coach had so much confidence in his new point guard that when veteran Aaron Brooks was suspended for the 2006-07 season opener due to a flagrant foul in the 2006 Pac-10 Tournament he called Porter a few days later and told him he would be starting in his first game.

"The only thing my staff and I did with Porter is that we saw someone during the recruiting process with Malik that we knew that we had to come back and take a look at," Kent said. "There are a lot of schools that stayed away from him because of his size, but he has tremendous heart and character. He is a unique individual, and he is going to be a great player for us."

Perhaps great enough to save Kent's job. Since leading the Ducks to 26 wins and a run to the Elite Eight in 2002, the program has been on a steady slide. Oregon has failed to reach postseason play the last two seasons, and a losing record (15-18) last year landed the nine-year coach squarely on the hot seat.

The emergence of Porter could be just what the Ducks and Kent need. Long considered an underachieving squad, they now have another major scoring threat for which defenses must account.

National media should keep their eyes on Porter as well.

Trivia question: Who was the only preseason NIT (now known as NIT Tip-Off) champion to go on to win the national title? Answer at the bottom of the column

Emotional Start
A second major college arena will hold its first game tonight. Virginia upset No. 10 Arizona on Sunday in the first game in John Paul Jones Arena. Tonight's arena unveiling will have a much more emotional feel.

Southern Cal will honor former teammate Ryan Francis when it faces South Carolina tonight at 10:30 p.m. (Eastern) in the Galen Center, an on-campus venue that seats more than 10,000.

A special ceremony will be held for the former point guard who was shot and killed in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La., in May. Part of the ceremony will include a video, featuring highlights of Francis and comments from coach Tim Floyd and Francis' mother.

The Gamecocks (1-1) are coming off what may be the biggest upset of the young season so far, a 67-52 loss at UC-Irvine (2-2) on Tuesday.

USC received some great news earlier this week when former five-star recruit Davon Jefferson signed a letter-of-intent with the Trojans. It's not clear when Jefferson will be eligible, but if he can get cleared by mid-December the team would receive a big boost.

Guard Gabe Pruitt, last season's leading scorer at 17 ppg, is already expected to return around that time after serving an academic suspension for the fall semester.

Sensational Start
Put Patrick Beverley in the race for SEC Freshman of the Year. In fact, put him at the top for now.

The Arkansas guard had one of the most impressive freshman debuts in SEC history, scoring 29 points and going 11 of 13 from the field in the Razorbacks' season-opening 92-52 win over visiting Southeast Missouri State on Friday. It was the highest point total for a Razorback in a season opener since former All-American Sidney Moncrief put up 30 in 1979 against Oklahoma. Beverley also added five rebounds, four assists and four steals.

Unlike most of the SEC's top freshmen, Beverely didn't emerge as a major prospect until his senior year when his stock began to soar. He wound up ranked the No. 65 prospect in the class of 2006.

Quick hits
It looks like Alabama will be without one of its top players during the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands on Nov. 17-20. Forward Jermareo Davidson, whose girlfriend was killed in a car accident over the weekend, is not expected to travel with the team. "I want people to know that I loved (my girlfriend)," said Davidson, who was a passenger in the car but was uninjured. "We had talked about having a future together, but she wanted me to graduate first." Davidson averaged 14.3 points and 8.9 rebounds a game last season.

North Carolina chose to redshirt freshman small forward William Graves this season, although in June coach Roy Williams said he didn't plan to redshirt any freshmen. A three-star prospect, Graves was the least-heralded member of North Carolina's top-ranked recruiting class. Graves likely would have seen little playing time on an extremely deep team.

Answer to Trivia Question: Duke beat Temple 63-60 in the 2000 Preseason NIT and beat Arizona 82-72 in the 2001 NCAA championship game.

Rivals.com college basketball writer Andrew Skwara answers your questions every week in his Friday Mailbag. Click here to send him a question.

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