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Published: February 14, 2011
Days after the late March announcement that Dana Altman would be the new coach of the Oregon Ducks basketball program, I remember watching a local news special about the new hire and the public reaction. I had been advised to watch because a couple of my friends were interviewed for the piece and of course wanted it to be known that their beautiful mugs would be on TV. Sure enough they popped up and were asked if they knew the name of the new coach and where he was from. They responded that they didn’t know the answer to either and that was the end of the interview. This was followed by several other interviews in which the interviewees had no clue whom would be replacing the new coach. Eventually the news crew was able to find a couple students who knew who would be replacing Ernie Kent, but the students when asked what they thought of the hire responded that they were either disappointed or couldn’t really give an opinion because they didn’t know enough about Altman. Probably not the type of reaction you want to get when you are on the cusp of opening up a brand new state of art basketball facility. For the Ducks so far, Altman has proven to be the right hire.
Following the news that Ernie Kent would no longer be the head man the Ducks embarked on a journey to find a new coach that seemingly took them to every corner of the country. The search began with high hopes of Oregon getting a big-name coach that could lead Oregon to higher levels than what Coach Kent had achieved during his tenure. Landmark names such Tom Izzo, Jamie Dixon, and Billy Donovan were thrown out there as well speculation that Oregon might break the bank on a record contract offer to these coaches. Fans still held out hope that Oregon would be able to woo Gonzaga’s Mark Few but he chose to remain in Spokane. Then came talks that Oregon had its eyes on Brad Stevens who had just guided mid major Butler to a berth in the national championship game. As the search stretched on Missouri’s Mike Anderson and Texas A&M’s Mark Turgeon were the hot names and after serious deliberation by Anderson the Ducks were once again forced to head in a different direction. Suddenly the Duck basketball program was becoming a bit of a laughingstock due to the duration of the search and the amount of candidates that had already turned down Oregon. Then from seemingly nowhere came the announcement that Dana Altman of Creighton University would be the eighteenth head coach of the Oregon basketball program.
Initial reaction to the hiring was lukewarm at best, ranging from disappointment to curiosity. Not a whole lot was known of Altman but his record of 327 wins to 176 losses at Creighton was impressive, as was his ability to guide the Bluejays to seven NCAA tournament bids. During his tenure at Creighton Altman produced NBA role players Kyle Korver and Anthony Tolliver. Altman was widely regarded as an excellent X’s and O’s coach and was known at Creighton for his one low-four high offense and full court defensive pressure. The announcement of Altman as the new head coach left fans wondering if the Ducks basketball program had any hope for being a legitimate contender in the future despite the fact that beautiful Matt Knight Arena was just months from being completed.
While the search for a new coach dragged on the basketball program was enduring a mass exodus through player transfers, academic casualty and Michael Dunigan’s baffling decision to play professional basketball in Israel. The roster that greeted Altman consisted of six scholarship players, seven below what teams are allowed to carry. Making matters worse was that there was not any indication of whether senior Joevan Catron was going to be granted a medical hardship year which would allow him to play one more year. This in effect gave Altman five known scholarship players when he arrived in Eugene. This scholarship count received a two-member boost when Altman was able to secure commitments from lightning quick point guard Jonathan Lloyd and junior college recruit Tyrone Nared. Providing a further boost was the summer news that Catron would be granted another year of eligibility as well as the news that three-point specialist Jay-R Strowbridge would be enrolling in Oregon and be immediately eligible to play. So after a hectic first couple of months Altman had the Ducks at nine scholarship players heading into the season.
Altman and the Duck basketball program prepared for the basketball season in relative obscurity due to the rise of the Duck football team and the fact that there were very low expectations for this team. The Ducks were widely picked to finish the season in the Pac-10 basement and three or four wins in conference would be considered somewhat of a successful campaign. There was even talk that the Ducks might match Oregon State’s 2007-2008 squads winless conference record. Jokes were exchanged that the Ducks might lose to top rated Duke by fifty points or that Oregon was exploring the possibility of red shirting Matt Knight Arena until there was actually a division one basketball program ready to play there. The perceived weakness of this Duck squad heading into the season was the lack of depth. As has been previously stated there were only six scholarship players returning and one of those scholarship players only played in four games the previous year. The other major problem that loomed over the Ducks was the fact that no one knew who would be able to put the ball in the basket. The four returning players that actually played last season; Garret Sim Teondre Williams, E.J. Singler, Jeremy Jacob, and Malcolm Armstead, were seen as nice players but not players that could lead a Pac-10 team to many victories. Catron had proved in his earlier years that he could be a contributor on a winning team, but he was a little bit of a wild card due to the fact that no one knew how he would return from last years back injury. Jonathan Lloyd came into Oregon as the gem of the recruiting class but not much was expected of him due to his diminutive size and questions about his jump shot. Tyrone Nared almost appeared to be a roster filler due to the fact that he was relatively unknown and the stats that he accumulated in junior college were nothing special. It appeared that the only way the Ducks were going to win was to play outstanding defense and out hustling teams.
The non-conference schedule played out to the low expectations starting with a season opening overtime victory over North Dakota State and ending with a home loss to the mighty Idaho Vandals. The highlight of the non-conference schedule were the back to back games against top ten teams Duke and Missouri. First was Duke, played in the Rose Garden in a game that was hyped as a Singler vs. Singler matchup. Older brother Kyle helped lead Duke to an easy twenty seven point victory, but the Ducks showed some serious fight in never giving up even though they faced a double digit deficit after the first couple of minutes. Oregon played in McArthur Court for one of the last times, the Ducks proceed to get ambushed in the first half by the Missouri Tigers. Trailing by twenty at the half some fans headed for the exits, but then something funny happened, the Ducks came out on fire in the second half. Led by E.J. Singler the Ducks stormed back before Jonathan Lloyd’s tying buzzer beater fell short. The Ducks closed their conference schedule on a low note following a loss to the mighty Idaho Vandals in Eugene, this left their record at seven wins and five losses heading into conference play.
Conference play for the Ducks so far has been a story of two half’s. The Ducks began conference play with four consecutive losses but since then have rebounded with six wins. This development has shocked the league, as five wins was thought to be the Ducks ceiling in terms of conference play. For a team with such low expectations entering the season the Ducks have already accomplished some remarkable feats in this Pac-10 season. The Ducks first brought in the Matt Knight era with a sound victory over USC for their first conference win and then following a loss to UCLA headed to Corvallis where the Beavers were favored for one of the first times in this rivalries recent history. Altman’s Ducks jumped out to a large lead in the first half and then held on by clinching the first Duck basketball victory over the Beavers in two years. Certainly a good start for Altman in beating the rival Beavers but then Altman followed this with Oregon’s first victory at Stanford in twenty-five years. After a brief setback in Berkeley to California the Ducks rebounded at home with victories over Washington State and conference favorite Washington. The Ducks currently sit at a respectable six wins and seven losses in conference play, good for fifth place, and an overall record of thirteen wins and twelve losses.
This begs the question, how is Altman getting this team to be competitive in conference? The Ducks at the beginning of the season were looked at as an automatic victory for Pac-10 foes, but now they sit fifth in Pac-10 with five games left. For a team that probably isn’t as talented as other Pac-10 teams the Ducks energy has been a difference in their victories and Altman deserves much of the credit for this. The Ducks, after made baskets always full court press which has at times wrecked havoc on other offenses ability to run the plays that they want.The Ducks zone defense has been for the most part stout in forcing teams to beat them from the outside. The offense that Altman has brought has also been a welcome change compared to Ernie Kent Duck offenses. Jonathan Lloyd and Malcolm Armstead have been pushing the ball at every available opportunity in an attempt to get easy buckets early in the shot clock. When this fails the Ducks have showed an improved half court offense compared to last year in which they have markedly improved in their ball movement. Altman has also done a great job of getting Joevan Catron plenty of looks, which has led to Catron (16 points a game) becoming an offensive force for the Ducks. Lastly Altman has done a masterful job of managing the roster so far this season. It hasn’t been easy since the Ducks have so little depth and has been made harder by Jeremy Jacob’s lingering injuries and Catron missing a couple games, but Altman has for the most part put competitive units on the floor for each game. The Ducks performance this season has certainly exceeded expectations and at this juncture in the Pac-10 season Altman is under heavy consideration for Pac-10 coach of the year.
So what does this mean for the Duck basketball team and their future? Altman was certainly not at the top of the list when the Ducks started their search for Ernie Kent’s successor but so far this season there can’t be any complaints about the job that he has done. Of course this is a rather small sample size (25 games) but you can count me as an Altman fan based on what I have seen him do with this team. This team was supposed to be the cellar dweller of the Pac-10 but Altman has molded this team into a competitive unit that cannot be considered an easy victory for other Pac-10 teams. Obviously questions still remain about Altman, such as his recruiting ability and how his teams will compete once he gets his players at Oregon but even these questions have been somewhat answered in Altman’s brief run at Oregon. Both Jonathan Lloyd and Tyrone Nared have been significant contributors in their first year on campus and Altman in his first full recruiting year has signed four players so far. The 2011 recruiting class is currently ranked 19th in the country by ESPN and is headlined by Oakland shooting guard Jabari Brown. Brown is rated as the twenty fourth best player in the country by ESPN and is the Ducks highest rated signee since Malik Hairston. The Ducks will also get a boost from the arrival of Minnesota guard Devoe Joseph who will be transferring to Oregon for his senior year next year. Landing a top 25 class in your first year is definitely a good start on the recruiting road and you would be inclined to believe that Altman’s recruiting prowess will grow in future years as he establishes himself at Oregon.
This season was supposed to be a lost season with the only highlight being the opening of Matt Knight Arena but the Ducks have been playing some exciting basketball and if they can end the season on a hot streak a post season berth is not out of the question. A berth in a the CBI Tournament would be a remarkable achievement for Altman and in my eyes make him deserving of the Pac-10 coach of the year award. Despite being buried on the list of candidates for Oregon’s job Altman has so far exceeded the most optimistic expectations for this season. If Altman can build on the momentum of this season and the recruiting class that he has inked so far, the Ducks could head into next year as a team expected to be in the top half of the conference. This is still a program in rebuilding mode but Altman has made remarkable progress and has set the foundation for getting the Ducks back into the tournament in a couple years.