Oregon Basketball’s Dana Altman Changing the Formula for Success

Dana Altman
Now in his third season as Oregon head coach, Dana Altman looks to build off Oregon's recent momentum. (Photo credit: Jason O. Watson/US Presswire)
Dana Altman
Dana Altman
(AP Photo)

A change was necessary. That much was apparent. After a 19 point loss to Arizona State in January 2010, Ernie Kent told the media:

“Somewhere in between Pullman, Seattle and Eugene we lost some of our grip.”

Well somewhere in between Kent’s 13 seasons as Oregon’s head basketball coach, Kent lost grip of his program. Kent went 24-39 in his final two seasons in Eugene, finishing 9th and 10th in the Pac-10, respectively. Kent survived an 8-23 record in the 2008-2009 season where his Ducks went 2-16 in conference. But wasn’t to be retained much longer.

Kent, the winningest coach in Oregon history, part of the memorable ‘kamikaze kids’ of the 1970’s, had to be fired. Kent informed his team shortly after it’s regular season finale February 22nd he wouldn’t be returning and on March 16, 2010 Kent was fired.

With the $227 million Matthew Knight Arena on the horizon, Oregon basketball had to usher in a new era. Backed behind Phil Knight, one of the most powerful figures in college athletics, Oregon was ready for its search.

Athletic director Mike Bellotti hoped to hire a replacement within 2 weeks of firing Kent. Bellotti wanted to hire some one who would “re-energize our fan base and attempt to expand ticket sales.”

Who would take over – NBA coach P.J. Carlesimo? Michigan State’s Tom Izzo? Local product and Gonzaga coach Mark Few? Florida’s Billy Donovan?

More than six weeks after Kent was fired none of those coaches could be reined in. And Oregon was told to “stop shooting for the stars” by CBS Sports.

On April 26th, 2010 Oregon finally had their man. 52 year old Crete, Nebraska native Dana Altman was the man chosen to take charge of the Ducks.

Oregon Ducks Men's Basketball
Dana Altman (right) gives instructions to his freshman point guard Dominic Artis (left) during the 2012-13 season
(Alex Shoemaker/Eugene Daily News)

Altman is not exactly the person you think as a coach would would re-energize and revitalize fresh blood into a fan base. At first glance the Nebraska native Altman is awfully unassuming, with a southern drawl that can lull you to sleep. And Altman wasn’t necessary good at new beginnings, resigning from Arkansas just days after being named the head coach.

What Altman could bring to the program was consistency, which Kent struggled to maintain in his final years at Oregon.

Altman won 327 games in 16 years at Creighton before heading west to Eugene. Funny thing, though, about Altman’s consistency is since he took over Oregon in April 2010 the program has been in a constant state of flux. At least in the conventional way. Altman has increased the team’s wins in each of his three seasons in Eugene – from 21 to 24 to 28 – and he’s done it through transfers.

Altman is king of the transfer, particularly the one-year transfer. Using the rule former Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli first brought to prominence, a player who has already graduated could transfer anywhere in the country and play immediately. Altman has used that rule to his advantage immensely. Still it wasn’t easy going.

[gn_quote style=”1″]”When you’re trying to blend eight new scholarship players, you’re going to go through some growing pains.” Altman said before the start of his second season. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”[/gn_quote]

When Altman took over the ruins of the Oregon basketball program, he did so with only five players who played more than three minutes a game the season before. The wear of transfers, graduation and european professional contracts weighed on Altman’s team. After signing on as Oregon’s coach late in the recruiting season, Altman put together a junkyard recruiting class of incoming freshmen Johnathan Loyd and German born Martin Seiferth along with transfers Tyrone Nared and Jay-R Strowbridge.

Oregon was tabbed to finish last in the Pac-10 in Altman’s first season and lost its first four conference games to flounder going into the opening of Matthew Knight Arena January 13th 2011. Oregon pulled off its first conference win of the season against USC in the inaugural game at Matthew Knight. One standout moment from that game was this tip dunk by the high-flying Tyrone Nared to electrify the Matthew Knight crowd going into halftime.

Strowbridge had a season of his own, capped by a season high 26 points against rival Oregon State. Oregon would finish 7-11 in the Pac-10 in 2010, eventually winning the College Basketball Invitational over Altman’s old school Creighton.

Jabari Brown
Jabari Brown was supposed to be the face of the Ducks
(US Presswire)

Going into Altman’s second year, the future looked bright. Oregon secured eight new players highlighted by top-20 national prospect Jabari Brown. Brown was expected to be the savior of the Oregon program – the player to take them to a new level.

However, Brown would flame out and transfer after just two games with the Ducks. Combine that with fellow highly touted guard Bruce Barron also transferring along with veterans Malcolm Armstead and Teondre Williams in the offseason. Before the conference season even started, Oregon was playing without four of its top players.

Panic could be felt all around Matthew Knight Arena. And at this moment is where the impact of Altman’s transfer players could really be felt. Devoe Joseph, the 6’4 combo guard who sat out a year after transferring from Minnesota, brought a spark. Oregon was 4-2 going into Joseph’s first game against Fresno State December 10, 2011 but something was missing.

Joseph had his share of problems, like many other transfers who ended up at Oregon, as he was suspended twice by Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith before leaving. However, Joseph also brought a scoring punch and a winning attitude with a NCAA tournament appearance already under his belt – two things Oregon desperately needed.

Teamed with his AAU teammate Olu Ashaolu, a one year transfer from Louisiana Tech, the Ducks finally had some viable firepower. Joseph and Ashaolu, both of Canadian descent, played on the Canadian National Team together with Joseph providing a strong influence in Ashaolu ending up at Oregon.

Two other big additions as transfers for Oregon was center Tony Woods and the high-flying Carlos Emory.

Oregon Ducks Men's Basketball
Tony Woods provided a big body for the Ducks
(Alex Shoemaker/Eugene Daily News)

Woods came from the most checkered past of any transfer in Altman’s three years as head coach. Woods plead guilty to assaulting his girlfriend and reportedly fracturing her spine in front of their infant child while a junior at Wake Forest. Woods had all of the tools for a great big man – size, strength, athleticism – but was still a work in progress on the court. Plainly put, Woods was inconsistent and lazy on both sides of the court. Woods moved into the starting center for the Ducks, with Emory providing energy off the bench.

Behind those transfers, Oregon picked up steam and entered the Pac-12 tournament with a 22-8 record and were a hot pick to sneak into the NCAA tournament. Devoe Joseph had become the Pac-12’s darling, garnering some player of the year consideration and finishing top-10 in the Pac-12 in six categories – including ranking third in scoring at 16.7 points per game.

Oregon would be shocked in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament by Colorado and would end up finishing the season at the NIT. Not a bad way to end the season and certainly a step up from the CBI. Still, an NCAA tournament bid alluded Altman and the Ducks.

As was customary fashion in the Altman era nine new players entered the program – with three players transferring out and three players transferring in.

Altman also had his first truly committed recruiting class going into his third season. Headed by Bay Area point guard Dominic Artis, who played on the same AAU team as castoff Brown, and his backcourt mate Damyean Dotson Oregon finally had a foundation to build on.

Perhaps the most important addition, though, was the 6’7 Arsalan Kazemi. Kazemi was the first Iranian-born player to ever play in the NCAA, holding top accolades in five categories at Rice before leaving amid allegations of racial discrimination.

Arsalan Kazemi
Arsalan Kazemi is the jewel of Altman’s group of transfers
(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Once Kazemi became eligible and entered the team, Oregon went 18-2 over the next 20 games. With big wins over No. 4 Arizona, No. 18 UNLV and No. 21 UCLA. The Ducks reached as high as No. 10 nationally.

Then just as they were at their highest point in nearly a decade, Oregon lost three straight games. And they were embarrassing losses at that. On the brink of their fourth straight loss, this time to bottom dweller Utah, Kazemi had seen enough. And in that halftime moment, Dotson had seen Kazemi like he had never seen him before. Kazemi, usually calm and restrained, exploded.

“It was all Arsalan,” Dotson said. “He was screaming like “this is our team. We can’t let the coach get mad at us. We’ve just gotta go out there and do it. Don’t talk about it, just do it.””

Altman finally saw a different side of the player he had been trying to coax emotion out of the whole season.

“He’s the nicest guy in the world, but basketball is a game of passion. We want guys to be emotional. We want them to be fired up. He’s got that laid back cool personality,” Altman said. “At halftime he let his teammates know that it was important to him and I thought the second half he was unbelievable.”

Kazemi had become the heart of the Ducks, the embodiment of everything Altman desired in a player – an all everything team player who would leave everything on the line on both sides of the court.

Oregon Ducks Men's Basketball
Oregon Ducks Men’s Basketball
(USA Today Sports)

Kazemi and his troupe of transfers – Woods, Emory, Waverly Austin – along with mainstay E.J. Singler and newcomers Artis and Dotson not only led Oregon to a Pac-12 tournament championship but a birth in the Sweet 16.

Oregon would ride a magical three week stretch defeating five seed Oklahoma State and four seed Saint Louis before losing to eventual champion Louisville.

After their season ended protocol seemed to come into order – four players transferred out while six players will transfer in. After losing four of their top six players, Oregon has seemingly rebuilt their team through transfers once again.

  • Joseph Young, who averaged 18 points per game last season, left Houston after his dad was fired as director of basketball operations.
  • Mike Moser will be on his third school in 4 years after leaving UNLV.
  • Richard Amardi was cut loose from his scholarship at Iowa State before signing at Oregon.
  • Elgin Cook originally signed with Iowa State but did not qualify academically out of high school.
  • Jalil Abdul-Bassit is an unheralded swingman who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska but played at North Idaho College.
  • Jason Calliste, who averaged more than 14 points a game last season, would have been Detroit’s best player before committing to Oregon.

No matter where they’ve come from, and they’ve come from places and situations wide in far during Altman’s tenure, they have found a fresh start and a home in Eugene with Altman and the Ducks.

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