Dana Altman is now approaching 600 wins in Division 1 basketball, and that’s more than all but 40 coaches in the history of the game. His status is rising quickly as he has stacked seven 20 win seasons at Oregon on top of the longest home court winning streak, back to back conference titles, Sweet 16’s and an Elite 8 appearance. His greatness involves recruiting, an ability to build a system around his players at the time, and his mastery of in-game adjustments.
Most people want to talk offense. Oregon wins under Altman because as Kevin O’Neill on the Pac-12 Network said,
“You could send Oregon to Jupiter and their defense would go with them.”
Coach Altman maximizes his players’ skill sets in dozens of subtle ways. He may be the best coach in America at teaching defense to switch from man-to-man to zone and back to man-to-man on the same defensive trip down the floor. It only works if all 5 guys buy into the system and play it intuitively.
It’s confusing for offenses seeing it for the first time, rough on teams in tournaments who lack time to prepare for it, and brutal on opposing staffs trying to yell what they’re seeing from the sideline in real time. The Ducks will start in a zone press, then slide into a match-up zone, and when the offense gets to a spot where all 5 guys are matched up with an offensive player they should be guarding, they switch to a man to man.
Then if the offensive post player goes to set a high pick or beyond the arc, they slide back to the match-up. It’s one reason you see young point guards struggle so much against the Ducks. There are ways to attack it, but not if you can’t recognize what you’re seeing.
The Zone Press
Oregon runs the soft zone press on defense for a few reasons. First to disrupt the offense but it serves other purposes. It lets big men like Jordan Bell rest for a few seconds at the back end of the press while the offense passes it back and forth. It kills valuable time on the clock so often the opponent doesn’t even start getting into their offense until the 20 or even 17 second mark left on the shot-clock. Watch how Oregon jumps out on defense at that point on the clock to force a few passes. Uh oh, now there are only 14 seconds on the clock.
One more press by the defense, force two more passes and, uh oh, now 8 seconds on the clock. It all starts with that press at the start of the clock. Having Bell, Chris Boucher or Kavell Bigby-Williams to rim protect is a gift for Altman of course, but he leverages what he has in unique ways. The Ducks use Tyler Dorsey up top most of the time. His lateral quickness is an asset along with his anticipation. But he lacks the length Dwayne Benjamin had last year at that spot so the press is a less disruptive than it was this time last year.
Look for Keith Smith to take on some of that role next year. He’s long enough to disrupt and quick enough to recover. That would let Dorsey play Brooks’ or Dylan Ennis‘ role near mid-court and lurk for steals or traps.
Brooks is a wonderful player with or without Dana Altman. But watch how he’s used. The Ducks put Brooks on the wing in the motion hand off offense where he can try to beat his defender who falls behind during the sideline-to-sideline motion. But that offense works for Brooks, Ennis, Pritchard, Benson and Dorsey who can all shoot it, penetrate or make a simple pass to the corner or post. Not one, or two, but three options. It suits all of their skill sets.
Boucher is a wonderful shooter from the corner. Not as good from the wing. Pay attention to where Boucher sets up – in the corner. Then in the off-season they coached him to fake the shot and if the defender bites, put it on the floor, take two dribbles and get to the rim. It’s an addition to his game and Altman and his staff should be credited for it.
Dillon Brooks isn’t the point guard but he’s the distributor in one of Oregon’s most important offensive sets. Oregon is most lethal on offense when it gets the ball at the free throw line or just below. Oregon’s never really had a guy who could pass, shoot or drive from that spot. Oregon didn’t go to that much at all in the past, and then Brooks arrived and now it’s a staple in their offense.
You’ll see shooters float to the wing to open space for Brooks to find them and defenders with less strength get bullied to the rim by Brooks. With taller players he often gets a first step, drives by, then and uses his length to stretch to the rim so they can’t block it. Or if they come up too tight he passes it softly around them to a cutter.
Oregon runs this as well as anyone in the nation. Watch for next year’s incoming five-star recruit Troy Brown to assume this same role if Brooks is gone next year. I imagine they discussed this during Brown’s recruitment. That spot on the court would give Brown room to be the play-maker without having to bring the ball up or play the point. It also allows Oregon to go bigger on defense with his 6′ 7″ frame. That play looks custom made for Brooks and now it’s likely to remain a key part of the offense with Brown’s arrival.
Finally, here’s an example (above) from the recent past with former Duck Kendall Small who has since transferred to Pacific. Near the end of the half, with seconds to play and Oregon in-bounding in the back court on the sideline. Altman inserted Small because of his speed bringing the ball up the court. A set play, the defense never saw it coming. The ball was in-bounded to Small who dribbled straight ahead knowing if they fouled him he’d shoot free throws. (Oregon was in the penalty.) Racing to mid court and to the left side to give himself an angle he pushed it up toward the basked in an apparent shot.
But Oregon had set a back pick for Dillon Brooks who leaped up, grabbed it and dunked it before the buzzer. Defense stunned in less than 4.5 seconds. A full court play executed to perfection with a guy off the bench who hadn’t been in the game yet. One who had been sitting for over an hour. That’s Altman. That’s having your players prepared for situations.
His ability to create situations for players to succeed in is just one more reason he’s likely to win over 700 games and maybe even 800. Hall-of-Fame Coach Dana Altman. I think Ducks fans need to get used to hearing it.
They have a rare opportunity to watch it all as it unfolds in front of them.
Lake Oswego, Oregon