Altman has Ducks back in the Sweet 16
The symbolism was hard to miss.
In April 2010, the University of Oregon held a press conference in the half-finished skeleton of Matthew Knight Arena to introduce its new men’s basketball coach, Dana Altman. Two months previously, Oregon had fizzled to a mediocre 16-16, and longtime head coach Ernie Kent was fired.
In 2008-09, the Ducks were 8-23 and 2-16 in the Pacific-10 Conference. The momentum Kent had built from an Elite Eight appearance in 2006-07 was long gone, and so was the patience of fans who couldn’t handle anymore up and down seasons.
So with Kent on his way out, Oregon’s former athletic director and super booster Pat Kilkenny set out to find the Ducks’ next head coach. He crisscrossed the country, taking 28 flights in 41 days in search of the big name fans longed for to bring in the next era of UO hoops in a shiny new arena. Names like Tom Izzo, Mark Few, Jamie Dixon and Brad Stevens of Butler were just a few on the all-star list Kilkenny targeted.
Each coach turned Kilkenny and Oregon down — some rather publicly. The search crawled on, giving some increasing pause about the caliber of the job at Oregon. Finally, Kilkenny came upon Altman, an excellent coach from Missouri Valley power Creighton. In 16 seasons, Altman had a record of 327-126. The Blue Jays had 11 20-win seasons under Altman and 13 appearances in the NCAA tournament. He had the pedigree Oregon wanted, maybe just not the name recognition.
Back to the press conference. Matthew Knight was supposed to be Kent’s to open during the 2010-11 season. Kent was the one, after all, to take the Ducks to two Elite Eights, but his goodwill for those dynamic seasons was erased many times over with his perceived lack of improving the high-caliber recruits who he got to come to Oregon. So instead of Kent triumphantly talking about how far the program had come, there was Kilkenny, Oregon’s interim athletic director and Altman sitting on a raised platform in the corner of what would become the floor in the arena. The ground was still covered in gravel, and concrete pillars poked out everywhere. The hiss of drills echoed in the distance.
The expectations weren’t great that first year. Altman inherited a roster full of Kent’s players. Most expected a sub-par season. Instead, the Ducks won 20 games and won the College Basketball Invitational. Last season, the Ducks won 13 games in the Pac-12 Conference, went 24-10 and lost in the semifinals of the NIT.
This season dawned with a bit more hope than there has been in past seasons at Oregon. Altman’s recruiting was taking root, and fans finally saw a plan. Oregon played good defense, rebounded well and played helter-skelter in transition. Fast-forward to today, and the Ducks finished tied for second in the Pac-12, won the conference tournament and are now in the Sweet 16 after wins vs. Oklahoma State and St. Louis in the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament. It’s Oregon’s first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2007, and after the absolutely depressing final three seasons of the Ernie Kent-era, Altman’s Ducks have Oregon fans buying in again.
Oregon struggled to get good attendance during its final seasons under Kent. It’s hard to imagine Matthew Knight not being packed after the outstanding rebuilding job Altman has done.