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February 4, 2007

Brooks matures into Mr. Big Shot for Ducks

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Fatherhood nearly drove Aaron Brooks out of Oregon.

The Seattle native wondered if he should stay home with his newborn baby instead of returning for his senior year. Brooks instead came back to school and brought his new family with him.

He now credits his 8-month-old daughter for helping him develop into one of the top clutch players in the nation.

"I don't have to stress on the court because I know there are more stressful things in life than basketball,'' the senior point guard said. "Going home to take care of my daughter, it's not stressful. It's one of the pleasures of life. But it puts basketball in focus. I'm not as concerned about what happens on the court as much as what happens at home."

What has happened on the court is nothing short of extraordinary.

Five times this season Brooks has made a game-tying or winning shot in the final minute of regulation or in overtime. The Pac-10 scoring leader has emerged as the best player on one of the nation's most surprising teams.

"Right now he's playing like one of the top five players in the country," Oregon coach Ernie Kent said.

That's heady praise for a guy who might not have been even one of the five best guards in the Pac-10 last year.

Brooks averaged 10.8 points per game and shot 40.6 percent in a disappointing junior season that ended in the Pac-10 tournament when he threw a forearm at Washington guard Ryan Appleby's mouth, producing a cut that required six stitches.

Brooks never was considered a great clutch shooter before this year. His off-court reputation took a hit with the Appleby incident. Now he possesses the maturity to lead the nation's ninth-ranked team while continually delivering in the final seconds.

What caused the change?

It's easier to relax in pressure situations after you discover basketball isn't the most important thing in your life. Brooks' priorities altered during the offseason when he became a father. His daughter, MiKah, was born last May.

"At 3 a.m., he's changing diapers instead of playing Nintendo," Kent said. "The responsibility allowed him to mature."

Brooks took fatherhood so seriously that he considered transferring to a Division II school near his hometown to stay close to his family. His girlfriend and daughter solved that problem by moving to Oregon.

"It definitely was a thought," Brooks said. "I wanted to make sure I had everything taken care of and wanted to make sure my family was taken care of. The best decision was to stay here and move them all down here."

Brooks now balances fatherhood, classwork and basketball. He has juggled his responsibilities well enough to average 18.7 points per game.

"It hasn't been that hard," Brooks said. "It's definitely a new life with a lot of responsibility, but my girlfriend does a great job. She's taking care of most of it as far as making sure MiKah is prepared and taken care of."

That has allowed Brooks to take care of business on the floor. He has shown a flair for the dramatic while leading the Ducks into Pac-10 title contention.

Brooks made a game-winning jump shot with 13.9 seconds left in a 68-66 victory over UCLA, which was ranked first in the nation at the time. A couple of days later, he made two game-clinching free throws with four seconds remaining in a 60-55 triumph at Arizona State. Two days after that, Brooks celebrated his 22nd birthday by banking a shot over a pair of defenders with two seconds to play in a 79-77 win at Arizona.

He tried to create more last-second magic Saturday, but his 3-point attempt at the buzzer misfired to end a 71-68 loss to Southern California.

"They came here and they weren't bothered by the crowd at all," Arizona coach Lute Olson said after the Wildcats' loss to Oregon. "I don't think they will be (bothered later) because of the leadership and experience that Brooks brings."

Brooks' playmaking ability down the stretch has helped Oregon go 9-2 in games decided by eight or fewer points. His poise under fire has helped the Ducks beat three ranked foes No. 18 Georgetown, No. 10 Arizona and No. 20 Washington State on the road.

The last week illustrated why Brooks might be the nation's most valuable player.

He sat out Oregon's game at Washington as part of his punishment for hitting Appleby last year. Brooks watched the game at an aunt's house and grew so frustrated that he text messaged teammate Tajuan Porter at halftime.

The Ducks certainly could have used his advice. They looked so lost without Brooks that they fell 89-77 to a team that had dropped six of its last seven games.

Two nights later, Oregon once again resembled a top-20 team. Brooks scored 31 points as the Ducks rallied for a 77-74 overtime victory at Washington State.

"What he's meant to us has been everything," Kent said. "He's won a lot of games for us. He handles himself extremely well on the floor. He's another tireless player who plays major minutes every game. Obviously we wouldn't be where we are (without him)."

Brooks' penchant for making big shots at crucial moments has caused Kent to make comparisons to one of the top players in recent Oregon history.

"I saw Luke Ridnour go through it as well," Kent said. "The same thing's happening with Aaron. You think you're never out of games."

Oregon hasn't played in an NCAA Tournament since Ridnour led the Ducks to a first-round appearance in 2003. The Ducks missed the postseason entirely the last two seasons and struggled through a 15-18 campaign last year.

That makes Oregon's surge this season all the more surprising, though Brooks dismisses the notion that the Ducks are producing a Cinderella story.

"We knew we were capable of this," Brooks said. "We didn't surprise ourselves. We feel we should have been playing like this for a while."

Nor are the Ducks surprised by Brooks' breakthrough season. Teammates have grown so accustomed to his late-game theatrics that they've nicknamed him "Mr. Big Shot." They knew the former four-star prospect was due for this type of season.

"The past couple of years, you guys haven't seen (the real) Aaron Brooks," junior guard Malik Hairston said after Brooks scored 22 points in a 92-84 victory over California. "Aaron Brooks is a dominant player, and he has a passion for the game."

Although Oregon looks like a lock for an NCAA berth, Brooks refuses to take anything for granted. He still remembers what happened during football season.

Oregon's football team was ranked as high as 11th in the nation after winning its first four games. The Ducks finished 7-6 and ended the season on a four-game losing streak.

"It definitely makes you keep things in perspective as far as how fast things can change," Brooks said.

The last year has given Brooks a new perspective on a lot of things.

For more coverage of the Oregon Ducks, check out DuckSportsAuthority.com.

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