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Lieberman: Has Paul Westhead worn out his welcome in Eugene?

When Paul Westhead was hired as head coach of Oregon women’s basketball in March 2009, his mission was simple: energize a fledgling program. @@[email protected]@ @@[email protected]@

Although Westhead has assuredly brought his entertaining, fast-paced brand of basketball to Eugene, the results — in terms of wins and losses — have been far less than satisfying.

Westhead’s third season as head coach came to an end with a 72-56 loss to Washington Wednesday afternoon at the Pac-12 Tournament in Los Angeles. The Ducks, which finished this year with a record of 15-16, are now 46-49 overall in Westhead’s tenure with the program. @@[email protected]@ @@[email protected]@

Talking to the media last week, Westhead conceded that his rebuilding project has taken longer than expected to blossom. After inheriting a team that had lost a program-record 21 games in 2008-09, he noted that close friends in the coaching ranks warned him an overhaul might require serious time investment. @@[email protected]@

“Four years,” Westhead recalled with a wry grin. @@Give the man a dang point [email protected]@

With next year standing as that benchmark season (at least in the mind of Westhead), how are prospects looking? To be frank, 2012-13 could produce one of the most undefined and inexperienced squads Westhead has inherited in five decades of coaching.

The Ducks will begin next year without a trio of seniors (Nia Jackson, Amanda Johnson, Jasmin Holliday) that averaged a combined 39.8 points per game for the team this year. That scoring constituted a whopping 41 percent of the team’s total output. Who will step in to fill that vacuum next season? As of right now, that answer is decidedly unclear. @@[email protected]@

The Ducks will return six freshmen and four sophomores, but none have shown enough consistent production to claim a place in the starting lineup with certainty. Sophomore point guard Ariel Thomas has the highest scoring output of any underclassman (8.9 ppg) but her shot selection (31.4 field-goal percentage) and sloppiness (0.82 assist-to-turnover ratio) make her a longshot to serve as a No. 1 option for the Ducks. @@[email protected]@

Behind Thomas, the Ducks’ future is even murkier. No returning player managed more than seven points per game or shot better than 38 percent from the field this season. Although several returners remain serviceable role players, Westhead will be tasked with running an up-tempo system without the proven scorers needed to make it hum.

Even more troubling for Westhead is the lucrative contract he agreed to three years ago. Though former athletic director Pat Kilkenny admitted the Ducks interviewed “at least one” female candidate that was strongly considered for the position, Westhead was the program’s eventual choice — at a steep price. He signed a five-year deal that pays him close to $3 million, an average of over $550,000 per year.

Why Westhead? At the time, the logic was that his patented fast-break approach — which landed him head coaching jobs with the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and Loyola Marymount University — would fill seats. The athletic department’s priority was developing a program that could pack 12,500-seat Matthew Knight Arena, which was expected to open in less than two years.

So far, that hasn’t been the case. The athletic department has struggled to make steady revenue off the arena since it opened in January 2011, while women’s basketball has remained a moderate draw at best, usually luring around 1,500 fans to Matthew Knight Arena for any given matchup. @@

There are also concerns about Westhead’s age. Although he has a wide range of coaching experience — NBA, WNBA, NCAA — Oregon is his first coaching position with women in the collegiate ranks. Can the 73-year-old Westhead connect with college-aged females? Almost as importantly, can he hit the recruiting trail and connect with the stars of tomorrow?

So far, Westhead has failed to cultivate enough talent to prove that his system can succeed in the Pac-12. And with an increasing salary burden and a program in flux, the pressure seems to be building.

“If you’re not winning a ton of games you’re never where you want to be,” Westhead said. “I think it’s taking longer than I had hoped. That’s hard.”

Hard on the fan base, hard on the athletic department, and — most visibly — hard on the head coach. However, if Westhead were to be cut loose, it seems likely he’d take the news in stride. His wife, Cassie, counts 18 teams among Paul’s employers during their 49-year marriage.

So as Oregon looks forward to next season, they must evaluate the prospects of their charismatic and enigmatic head coach. Is the Guru of Go the man to rebuild the Oregon program? Maybe, maybe not. But with financial pressure mounting and losses piling up, his time may be coming sooner than initially expected.

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David Lieberman

David Lieberman