Dana Altman and the Island of Misfit Ducks

At first, no one wanted Rudolph. I mean, c’mon, a red-nosed reindeer?

So he and his buddy, an elf with aspirations to be a damn dentist, escaped to the “Island of Misfit Toys,” where they team up with a “Charlie-In-The-Box,” a non-returning boomerang and others to find their “misfit mojo.” Combining their complementary skill sets, they defeat the evil Toy Taker and save Christmas!

Believe it or not, Dana Altman is very familiar with the “Misfit Toy” narrative himself. And he might want to assemble his own group of “Misfit Ducks” if he hopes to reach another Final Four.

Altman Has Won With “Misfits” Before

From Video

Altman helped Brooks become a star.

Altman was hired in 2010 after the Ducks were rejected by Mark Few, Tom Izzo, Lon Kruger and others. He then built a team around the likes of Arsalan Kazemi, E.J. Singler and Jonathan Lloyd, mixing in good-but-not-great recruits Casey Benson, Jordan Bell, Dillon Brooks and Payton Pritchard, and sprinkling in transfers Joseph Young and Chris Boucher.

All of those guys had holes in their game. Benson lacked athleticism. Bell lacked an offensive game. Brooks had T-Rex arms. Pritchard was a small-town Oregon kid. And Boucher had a set shot that unfolded at the rate of a hydraulic scissor-lift. None of them fit in at Duke, Kentucky or North Carolina.

Yet together, those “misfits” went to the Elite Eight and Final Four, beating second-ranked UCLA, third-ranked Kansas and fifth-ranked Arizona. And they won two Pac-12 championships along the way.

College basketball teams are like minor league baseball teams. Don’t fall in love with a player because he will most likely be gone by the next season. The only constant, at least theoretically, is the coach, who faces the monumental task of uniting this group of young men and preparing them to play a team game. Then, he can only cross his fingers and hope that the chemistry is right in March.

But does it have to be that way?

What if a team has a great coach who can instill team chemistry from the get-go? What if a team actually has upperclassmen on the roster?

Altman and His Process

From Video

Jordan Bell developed into a force during his four years at Oregon.

In the 2017 NCAA Tournament, the Ducks were a three-seed, and many predicted that they would be upset by Rhode Island. They almost were. But they held on and faced Kansas — a team they were told they had no business competing with. Ignoring the naysayers, the Ducks won 74-60 to advance to the Final Four for the first time since winning the inaugural tourney in 1939.

A missed rebound against North Carolina capped consecutive deep tourney runs, consecutive Pac-12 conference titles and a magical season that included one of the best shots in Oregon basketball history to beat UCLA three days after Christmas in 2016.

In the frenetic finish, Brooks grabbed the rebound off of a missed free throw, Pritchard brought the ball up the court, passed it back to Brooks, Jordan Bell set a screen, and the shot went up.

Ball game. Pure magic.

As Recruiting Rankings Rose, Results Declined

A year ago, this magic seemed like the new normal. What happened? The core of that final four team left for the NBA, but all marquee programs have at least two guys leave for the draft. Usually those guys are starters.

From Video

Dillon Brooks and Dana Altman delivered the magic.

Last season and this current one look like they will be Altman’s worst as Oregon’s head coach. The Ducks have already lost more games this season than they did in the two seasons that they made deep tournament runs. The men’s program is playing second fiddle to the women’s, and rightfully so. But it feels a bit odd just a year removed from the one-point loss to North Carolina, a game away from the National Championship.

This article is by no means a plea for Oregon to move on from Altman. It is a plea for Altman to return to what works best for him: assembling and leading a team of misfits with complementary skill sets.

The core players Oregon used in those magical tourney runs were not highly recruited. They were mostly three stars and (with the arguable exception of Tyler Dorsey) not five stars or one-and-done players. Joe Young was ranked 107th coming out of high school, Elgin Cook 350th, Bell 100th, Brooks 59th, Pritchard 54th and Dorsey 28th. (Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports’ composite rankings.) These kids ended up playing multiple years under Altman, developing their skills and building team chemistry.

Altman was doing his best Sam Hinkie impression in those years. Oregon had a process, and the team and community were trusting it. Let those east coast schools have the one-and-done kids. Oregon was a team of misfits, and it was working.

Eugene Johnson

Tony Brown was a blue-chip recruit.

In 2017, things began to shift. Altman landed the biggest recruit of his career in Troy Brown – a consensus five star and the 13th-ranked player in the country. Brown struggled during his first and only season at Oregon, but NBA scouts loved his skill set, and the Washington Wizards picked him 15th overall.

This season Altman raised the recruiting bar even further, signing Bol Bol and Louis King, consensus five-star recruits and the headliners of the third-ranked class in the country. While King missed the beginning of the season with a hand injury, Bol averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds through nine games before suffering a season-ending injury. The team struggled despite Bol’s success, however, going 6-3 with losses to Iowa, Texas Southern and Houston. While King has played well following his return to the lineup, the Ducks’ 13 losses have put them in sixth place in the Pac-12 and out of contention for a tournament berth.

Altman isn’t the same type of coach as Roy Williams, John Calipari or Mike Krzyzewski, who have regular success with the one-and-done model. He is a great in-game basketball coach who does best with a team of misfits, a “nobody-believes-in-us” crew, a hungry pack of overlooked underdogs.

Landing big-name freshmen is great, but Oregon isn’t winning under that model. Altman needs to return to finding players that buy in to his system, complement each other, and stick around a few years. Once that misfit mojo returns, expect your stockings to bulge once again with Pac-12 titles and deep NCAA tourney runs.

AJ Costilla 
Wilsonville, Oregon Top Photo by Eugene Johnson

 

Phil Anderson, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is a trial lawyer in Bend Oregon.

 

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