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April 14, 2011

CBI champ Oregon looks to follow VCU's lead

If recent history is an indication, a win in the College Basketball Invitational, despite being a footnote during March Madness, can mean big things, even if it comes by the thinnest of margins.

Matthew Knight Arena's near-invisible halfcourt line helped Oregon win the CBI title this season. The Ducks' new arena has a gaudy floor design, but the halfcourt line does not stand out. In the CBI final in Eugene, a Creighton player inadvertently crossed the thin line for an over-and-back violation. The turnover led to a winning shot with one second left by forward E.J. Singler in a 71-69 victory that sealed the Ducks' title.

The four-year-old CBI doesn't carry the same prestige as the NIT, much less the NCAA tournament. But for first-year coach Dana Altman and Oregon, playing the postseason in relative obscurity was worth it.

"Our decision to play in the CBI was, 'If we're going to do this, we're going to win it,' " said Singler, the younger brother of Duke star Kyle Singler. "We came across that we wanted to play and try to get as much experience as possible."

Despite the anonymity of the CBI, the champion deserves a second look. Or a first look for viewers without HDNet, the broadcast partner of the tournament.

Last season's CBI champion -- a title decided in a best-of-three series -- followed up with a trip to the NCAA tourney's Final Four this season.

VCU swept Saint Louis in the 2010 CBI, the first indication coach Shaka Smart might have a knack for winning in the postseason. VCU may have been one of the last teams into the NCAA tournament as a member of the First Four this season, but the Rams took advantage by defeating USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas on the way to the Final Four.

Victories over the College of Charleston, Boston University and Saint Louis in the CBI last season were key building blocks for the team that eventually lost to Butler in a national semifinal.

"We were still getting to know each other," Smart said before the Final Four. "When we played in that tournament, it gave us a phenomenal opportunity to continue building and learning and playing a lot of our young guys."

While the CBI isn't the NCAA tournament, it is an extra two weeks of tournament basketball and, more important, an extra two weeks of practice.

Football coaches often say one of the reasons they like the bowl system is the extra practice opportunities. Basketball coaches feel the same way about the NIT, CBI and CollegeInsider.com tournaments.

"We knew the CBI wasn't the caliber of the other tournaments, but we went in with a good mindset," Singler said. "If you have a good mindset, you come out with wins."

Beyond the CBI itself, VCU and Oregon have a few things in common. For starters, both teams won the CBI with a coach in his first season. In addition, both teams lost their best player after the CBI.

After defeating Saint Louis, VCU star forward Larry Sanders decided to turn pro a year early and was a first-round pick. But nearly every other key player from the CBI team -- Joey Rodriguez, Bradford Burgess, Brandon Rozzell and Jamie Skeen -- returned in 2010-11.

Oregon is losing Joevan Catron, the Ducks' top scorer and rebounder. The Ducks also are losing senior guard Jay-R Strowbridge, while starting point guard Malcolm Armstead has announced he will transfer and attempt to play his senior season closer to his home in Florence, Ala. Armstead played two seasons with the Ducks after transferring in from Chipola College (Fla.).

But the Ducks will have Singler back, along with forwards Jeremy Jacob and Tyrone Nared and guard Garrett Sim.

"The momentum will be important if they use it and work their tails off," Altman said after the CBI title game. "They have to invest in the program like Joevan has these past five years."

There's also a solid recruiting class on its way to Eugene. Five-star guard Jabari Brown, the 26th-ranked player nationally, headlines a class of four high school signees, Minnesota transfer Devoe Joseph and junior college transfer Carlos Emory.

The Ducks also will benefit from more time at Matthew Knight Arena. The arena opened Jan. 13 and Oregon was 9-3 there, including wins over NCAA tournament teams USC and Washington.

Oregon players also will have a better comfort level with Altman, who won 327 games and went to the NCAA tourney seven times in 16 seasons at Creighton. Altman wasn't the program's first choice as coach, far from it; reports indicated Oregon first tried to lure Mike Anderson, Tubby Smith, Jamie Dixon, Billy Donovan and Tom Izzo, among others, in a coaching search that lasted 41 days.

While Oregon was picked in the preseason to finish at the bottom of the Pac-10, the Ducks went 7-11 in league play and won more than 20 games for just the second time since 2003.

"It was difficult for our team to get with what he was trying to preach to us," Singler said. "We started playing better ... midway through the Pac-10 season. A lot of teams didn't want to play us."

Now, Oregon hopes the CBI experience, winning a tournament and extra practice will pay off next season like it did for VCU.

"We want expectations," Altman said after the CBI final. "Next year the league is going to be tougher and we're going to have to get a lot better. Higher expectations are a good thing. It just adds to the work we have to do as a team, for the players and as the coaching staff."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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