Pac-12 Conference Champions. . .that was last year. . .and again this year! At this point in the season the Ducks have established an identity as strong competitors for a second straight conference title. The effort has been led by almost an entirely new unit than those we saw hoist the trophy last year in Las Vegas. A team that finished with a sweet sixteen appearance against the eventual national champions. There are high hopes again with this new squad, a unit built much differently since the losses of seniors Arsalan Kazemi, Tony Woods, Carlos Emory and E.J. Singler. So far, the team has surpassed expectations by beating Georgetown, Ole Miss and a slew of other competitive schools. To understand why this program has been so surprisingly successful, one has to look at how the team is built.
Head Coach Dana Altman has once again traveled the country to find his hidden gems. While on the recruiting trail he identified and landed, as is his special talent, numerous transfers who have come in to create immediate impact. Rarely do head coaches emphasize going after transfer students when accumulating new talent. But Altman, the reigning Pac-12 coach of the year, has been unorthodox in this regard. Usually, coaches chase after top freshman from around the country, luring them with the opportunity to play right away. The downside to this, though, is high turnover through losing players to the NBA. This also takes minutes away from returning players who need them to further develop. The acquisitions of guys like Joseph Young and Mike Moser have given other programs in the NCAA perspective on a different way to build a successful team. These two guys are established veterans of the college ranks who have seen major minutes at other schools. This attribute gives them the experience needed to begin helping a team right away. Experience the Ducks have ridden to an 8-0 record.
Of course, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Programs like Duke, Kentucky, Louisville and Kansas boast top recruiting classes every year and normally have successful seasons. But there is a growing trend in the college ranks. The one-and-done (first-year players leaving for the NBA) has never been more prevalent than it has been in recent years. Usually these are those highly talented, well recruited players that come in the door with relatively high draft stocks even before stepping on the court. Their schools are constantly having to rebuild, retool and start over. This has led to under-performance and losses to teams that may be far less talented. Kansas, for example, recently lost to a less talented but more experienced Colorado team that had only one starting freshman. By contrast, Kansas does not start any of the same players that started on last years’ team. Leadership is hard to come by at these schools. Players who are relatively new to the program, many of them freshman, are expected to lead a team they have barely gotten to know. They are still adjusting to the pressure, chemistry building and their responsibilities as a student. It is not customary to see a leader emerge at these “elite” programs this early in the season.
Teams like Oregon, who build upon many talented players instead of one or two 5-star recruits, do not suffer as much from the leadership void. Their leadership develops naturally over time, not forced out of necessity. Joseph Young, a senior, has been the best player on the court, but guys like Johnathan Loyd, Damyean Dotson and Waverly Austin provide a solid foundation for which new players can build upon. For Oregon, success means sustaining a winning environment over many years and establishing a brand into the future. It would seem that with Altman’s newly extended contract, the athletic department shares my views on the direction of this program. Oregon is officially both a football AND a basketball school.