It is a cold, rainy Friday December 30th night in Seattle, WA. The Hec Edmundson Pavilion on the campus of the University of Washington is dark, quiet, and empty. For now. But that solitude is fleeting, as the Oregon Ducks Men’s Basketball program will arrive shortly to practice on the eve before they take on their second tough Pac-12 opponent, and bitter rival, Washingto Huskies of the road trip opening the Pac-12 conference play for the 2012 season.
Prior to this night and this season, the men’s basketball program at Oregon looked exactly like the weather typical of a gloomy Seattle day; dull, quiet and empty. Long ago were the days of fast tempo, exciting Ducks basketball with star standouts such as Aaron Brooks, Malik Hairston, Tajuan Porter, Maarty Leunen, Freddie Jones, and the two Lukes. Those players are long gone, as is Coach Ernie Kent.
In his second season as the Ducks Head Coach, Dana Altman is in charge of not only calling the plays, but tasked with bringing the Ducks basketball program out of the dark days of the final years under Kent, and into the bright, up-tempo, exciting times of old. In less than two full years in Eugene with a roster that has experienced massive attrition, he has done just that.
In 2010-2011, his first season as head coach, Dana Altman surprised many people with what he was able to accomplish in such a short time with little in terms of preparation. However, Altman’s entrance brought in more turmoil than was probably expected. Upon Ernie Kent’s firing, players such as Malcolm Armstead, Michael Dunigan, and a couple others left the Oregon program. It appeared as though the Kent firing was going to cost the Ducks on the court just as much as it was off the court, thanks to Kent’s large buyout clause in his contract.
However, Altman brought a 15-15 team from the previous year up to a 21-18 team using a roster with barely enough bodies to even be able to practice. A team he was not familiar with, one with which he had not recruited a single player, and even lost some major players in all the fallout was vastly exceeding expectations.
With a 21-win season he led the Ducks to the CBI Tournament, a buy-in tournament below the NIT, but for a young roster still learning Coach Altman’s ways the extra practice time and games was invaluable. In the tournament the Ducks defeated a tough former CBI champion, Duquesne, and a good Boise State team to advance to the finals against Creighton, who they defeated two games to one, to win the CBI Tournament. The CBI championship was rather ironic, in that Oregon had hired Altman away from Creighton, a school he had coached at for years. The CBI tournament is unique in that it holds a best-of-3 series between the finalists, affording Coach Altman the opportunity to get a final curtain call at Creighton and issue in the Altman era at Matt Knight Arena in grand style with a championship
Fast forward now to the 2011-2012 season. Coach Altman has players that he recruited, and can officially call the Ducks his team. But once again, the Ducks basketball program is met with more turmoil, being informed that five-star standout freshman Jabari Brown is transferring after only a few games in a Duck uniform, and freshman Bruce Barron will also leave the program, despite Dana Altman wanting both of them to stay with the program.
In a situation where most coaches hit the panic button, Coach Altman did the opposite; he calmly went about bringing in immediate help to the Oregon program. If there is one thing that Altman has proven so far this season, it is that he knows how to go out and find those diamond-in-the-rough players. This year Altman answered these potentially rough growing pains with new stars, like a senior transfer big-man in Tony Woods from Wake Forest. Altman answered the loss of Brown by bringing in a star guard in Devoe Joseph, and another fruitful big-body transfer from Louisiana Tech, Olu Ashaolu. These players, along with lights-out shooters such as E.J. Singler, Garrett Sim, and sophomore guard Jonathan Loyd, are bringing back that bright and exciting look for the Ducks, not in overwhelming raw talent but sheer will to succeed. A team that had earned a reputation as long-range shooters firing away quickly from anywhere on the court recklessly taking maybe eight seconds off the shot clock, have now transitioned into a disciplined, hungry, scrappy team that does all the little things right.
Fast forward to practice in dark, quiet, empty, rainy Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle. The season is well under way; players such as Jonathan Loyd are sore from the grind of the season thus far, and oh by the way, Pac-12 play is officially beginning. On the eve before they take on the Washington Huskies, the Ducks are 10-3, which is an enormous improvement over the last season. The Ducks had opened up Pac-12 play in Spokane against Washington State the previous night. Oregon had their way with the Cougars and dominated, a 92-75 win. In that game Olu Ashaolu shined like the diamond Dana Altman knows that he is, scoring 23 points in the first half and ending the game with 10 rebounds.
So while the Hec Edmundson Pavilion was lit up from the darkness by the Ducks high-energy in practice and the 10-3 start, not to mention the Ducks coming off their first Pac-12 victory, the game against the Huskies that came the following night was a bit of a struggle for the Ducks as they fell to the Huskies 76-60, ending a four-game win streak. The game however, was much brighter for the Ducks than the final score indicated.
E.J. Singler led the team with 20 points while Olu Ashaolu owned the glass with 12 rebounds. The Ducks beat the Huskies 16-2 in second chance points which kept the Ducks closer, but it was a miserable shooting night for the Ducks newest star Devoe Joseph, who went 1-13 finishing with just four points.
After the loss to Washington, Oregon returned home to Eugene and the friendly confines of Matt Knight Arena to take on a tough, up-and-coming Stanford team to ring in 2012. Since transferring to Oregon, Devoe Joseph has caused Ducks fans to ask the same question; who needs Jabari Brown? Joseph found his shot that had gone missing vs. Washington, scoring a career-high 30 points against Stanford. Tony Woods help shut out standout Stanford big-man Josh Owens. This performance from Oregon earned them a 78-67 win over the Cardinal. The win brings Oregon to 11-4 on the season, and 2-1 in Pac-12 play.
From afar, it appears that amidst the turmoil of more players leaving the Oregon program, and the imagery of the dark, empty, quiet evening in the Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle would exemplify expectations for this year’s Duck squad. Oregon was supposed to have a poor season, where fans continued to lose faith in the program, still several years away from competing with the upper echelon of the Pac-12 conference. However, Dana Altman’s ability to find players, and ability to bring a team together has gotten this team off to a great start. It is a beginning to the season that has enabled the dark, empty, quiet reputation, in addition to the nasty fallout with Ernie Kent, to part like storm clouds and bring in a bright, exciting, competitive Oregon basketball program that would please not only Duck basketball fans, but the young man that the basketball arena is named after who couldn’t be here to witness it all unfold.