Could We Be Witnessing The Beginning Of A Duck Dynasty?
The wait only lasted a mere 78 years. 1939, that was the last time Ducks’ faithful experienced the euphoria of a Final Four run. That just so happened to be the first ever NCAA national title in college basketball. Suffice to say, the hoopla wasn’t quite what we’re accustomed to today.
Considering the behemoth financial backing the University of Oregon has from Phil Knight, it’s fair to ask the question why wouldn’t the basketball program be on the same trajectory as the football squad over the same time period?
The financial backing was there, one need look no further than the impressive Matthew Knight Arena that opened in January of 2011. But in this instance, despite all the financial backing the world, it would take something else to jump start a program who wasn’t exactly known as a basketball powerhouse (that 1939 National title aside).
Enter Dana Altman, who not only wasn’t the Ducks first choice to be their new head coach 7 years ago, he wasn’t even on the radar. But he should have been. Altman’s record at Creighton was impressive. In his 4th year at Creighton, the Bluejays turned the corner. A team that was 7–22 when Altman took over, became a consistent winner. In that same 4th year under Altman, Creighton went 18–10, followed by 22–9, 23–10, 24–8, 23–9, and 29–5, a 5-year run which included 5 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament.
How Altman wound up at Oregon included the university’s first choice, Mark Few, among others, believing they were in better situations already. Reportedly another candidate didn’t even know what city the University of Oregon was located. It took advice from former USC head coach George Raveling to help sway Oregon and the A.D. at the time Pat Kilkenny to give Altman consideration. When asked about where Oregon should go for their next coach, Raveling said that in his mind, there was only one coach right for the job, and that coach was Dana Altman. The admiration of Altman, Kilkenny soon found, was widespread. Kilkenny reportedly said of 20 people he spoke to, he got back 2o A+’s.
How right that decision proved to be. Last year Oregon not only earned their first ever #1 seed in the NCAA tourney, a result of winning both the PAC-12 regular season and tournament titles, but the Ducks reached the elite eight. The Ducks tournament run included an 82–68 sweet 16 win over the Duke Blue Devils that included a team high 22 points from Dillon Brooks.
Off last year’s elite eight run, and with the return of pre-season All American Dillon Brooks — along with Tyler Dorsey, Jordan Bell, Chris Boucher and the arrival of highly hyped freshman guard Payton Pritchard — expectations were for an even deeper tournament run this year.
Things don’t always go to plan however. Dillon Brooks began the year on the sidelines, rehabbing from foot surgery. Without the Ducks alpha to carry them, Oregon plummeted from 5th in AP Preseason Polls, to as low as 24th in the nation after early season losses to Baylor and Georgetown.
But as is usually the case under Dana Altman teams, the Ducks got better and better as the season wore on. They repeated as PAC-12 co-champs in the regular season (owning the tiebreaker with a win in their only meeting with Arizona), again reaching the tournament final.
Just hours before the conference tournament final, however, news came out that felt like a punch to the gut of any Oregon follower, player or coach. Chris Boucher, one of the nation’s leading shot blockers, who also could play inside and outside with his 3-point ability, was lost for the remainder of the season. That meant no NCAA tournament for the versatile, 6'10, shot-blocking Boucher.
Without Boucher, an Oregon team that many felt had final four potential, most felt had now lost their chance to reach the promised land. But a funny thing happened after Oregon’s first game without Boucher — which resulted in a loss to an Arizona team they demolished 85–58 just 5 weeks earlier. After getting over the initial shock of his loss, regrouping, and beginning NCAA tournament play, the team transformed. The Ducks best player, and PAC-12 Player of the Year — Dillon Brooks — while still a matchup nightmare for almost any team, had become the team’s 3rd best player. Instead, it was Sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey, who has earned the nickname “Mr. March” with his incredible post-season run that began in the PAC-12 tournament who was making all the big shots. Dorsey’s post-season run includes a still intact streak of 7 consecutive games of 20 or more points, not to mention clutch shot after clutch shot as this dream tournament run continues.
Also stepping up and becoming a force, on both ends of the floor, has been Jordan Bell. Bell is a dominant defensive force for the Ducks and the PAC-12 defensive player of the year. But with Chris Boucher out, Bell knew he had to do more. And Bell has more than delivered. He’s grabbed crucial offensive rebounds to help the Ducks land in the final four, and his shot blocking has been unequalled from a PAC-12 player in NCAA tournament play (his 8 blocks in Saturday’s Elite eight win over Kansas were the most ever by a PAC-12 player in NCAA tournament since statistics were recorded).
With Dorsey and Bell playing at such an elite level, that allowed the Ducks to win when Dillon Brooks wasn’t at his absolute best. Brooks has still been terrific, he’s a dominant force. But to this point in the tournament, the Ducks have won without Brooks being the best player on the team. It’s this fact that makes their final four matchup with North Carolina very intriguing. The Tar Heels will be facing a team with an All American, and reigning conference player of the year, who is right now the team’s 3rd best player. That’s a scary proposition for anyone. And if Brooks were to return to the form that he showed most of the season — including being the guy who lives for the big moment, and backing it up with hitting game winning shots over Tennessee, UCLA, and at CAL — don’t be surprised if it’s the Ducks that continue dancing into Monday night’s final.
Whatever the outcome, there’s no question that under Altman, the Ducks are in great hands. They also have become a force on the national scene. The two best coaches in the PAC-12 conference these days are widely regarded as Arizona’s Sean Miller, and Dana Altman. But while Miller still searches for his first ever visit to the final four, Altman now has a national semifinal on his resume. But as much as it is getting there, it’s even more how Altman did it. A virtuoso job that might be Altman’s best coaching job ever — considering he took a team that lost it’s 2nd leading rebounder, 3rd leading scorer and the conference’s leading shot blocker in Chris Boucher, just days before the Ducks tournament run began.
Thinking of a comparison for Altman, another great coach comes to mind. While he may not yet have the accolades or the hardware to match just yet, Altman is well on his way to becoming the Gregg Poppovich of the PAC-12 conference. High praise yes. But well deserved. All that’s missing is a title. But whether the Ducks advance to Monday night and go on to win it all or not … Oregon under Dana Altman, has aligned themselves to be in the national conversation year in and year out.