The University of Oregon men’s basketball team has won 20 games in five straight seasons for the first time in the 110-year history of Ducks basketball. Oregon has had a significant run the past half decade, and there is no one more deserving of the Ducks’ success than Head Coach Dana Altman.
As a senior at the University, and a lifelong Ducks fan, I grew up watching great basketball teams under Ernie Kent. Luke Ridnour, Luke Jackson, Fred Jones, and Aaron Brooks were all part of my concept of what basketball was as an Oregon fan. Oregon was a very good team, and I took it for granted. Coach Kent took the Ducks to five of the program’s 12 total NCAA Tournament appearances.
But after two consecutive poor seasons in 2008 and 2009, Ernie Kent was fired and the search began to replace one of the best coaches Oregon basketball had ever seen. Little did I know when attending my first year of college that I would be blessed to have such a great coach take over after the end of the Kent era.
Coach Altman, however, simply began a new era. After taking over as head coach in 2010, Altman has led Oregon to its highest five-year winning percentage in school history (.688). With a 119-54 record, Oregon has recently become a predominant team in the Pac-12, reminiscent of the early 2000s teams under Kent. Altman has led the Ducks to two straight NCAA Tournament births and one Sweet 16 appearance. If the Ducks make the tournament this year (which is very likely) it will be the first time in school history that Oregon has made the big dance three years in a row.
But while Altman’s record speaks for itself, what really impresses me is his ability to take below-average teams and build them into winners. Throughout Altman’s tenure he has never had a standout lineup on paper. It’s been his understanding of how to get the most out of his players and how to recruit high-impact transfers that has allowed Oregon to consistently outperform expectations.
For example, take this year’s roster. Four of the Ducks’ most important players transferred to Oregon within the past two seasons.
Joseph Young, the Houston transfer, has basically put the team on his back all year and leads the Pac-12 in scoring with 20 points per game. Jalil Abdul-Bassit transferred to Oregon last year from North Idaho College and has become one of our better scoring options on the wing. Elgin Cook, who transferred from Northwest Florida State a year ago, has become arguably the Ducks’ second-best player, coming in second on the team in points and rebounds. Even Dwayne Benjamin has been an impact player in his first season after leaving Mt. San Jacinto Junior College.
Ever since accepting the job at Oregon, Altman has been bringing in key players from around the country to keep the Ducks near the top of the Pac-12. Tony Woods, Arsalan Kazemi, Mike Moser, Jason Calliste, Olu Asholu, Devoe Joseph…. the list goes on. All of these transfers have become some of the Ducks’ best players in recent memory, and all were transfers.
And while all were clearly talented players, they have flourished under Dana Altman’s system in Eugene. This year in particular has proven Altman’s coaching acumen. The Ducks went into the season predicted to finish 8th in the Pac-12 and have already secured at least a third-place finish.
I know I was never around for games at Mac Court under Dick Harter or Ernie Kent, but from what I have seen, Dana Altman knows what he is doing and there’s no two ways about it. After 18 consecutive winning seasons it’s hard to deny his prowess on the floor. Every time I hear his deep, low register bellow calling out plays to our players, I get a slight smirk on my face. In my mind he has solidified himself as an impressive coach, and I’m happy to have him at the helm of our program.
A few weeks back the Ducks hosted the Washington State Cougars at Matthew Knight Arena. As the opposing players were introduced, the Pit Crew did its usual booing and trash talking, with the exception of one man. Ernie Kent walked onto the evergreen, silhouetted floor and the entire crowd gave him a standing ovation and a round of heartfelt applause. It was a quick lapse in competition and a thankful gesture to one of our own.
In that moment I couldn’t help but think about the Ducks’ past and all of those great years under Ernie Kent. But I realized that what we have right now is special, a passing of the torch. It may still be early in his Oregon career, but Dana Altman has what it takes to become the best coach in Ducks basketball history. While the past was radiant, the future looks brighter than ever.
Top photo by Craig Strobeck