He’s doing it with transfers. He’s doing it with freshmen. In just his third season as the head coach of the Oregon Ducks’ men’s basketball team, Dana Altman is doing what Ernie Kent couldn’t in his final three seasons at the helm in Eugene – following the 2007 NCAA Tournament, when his Ducks charged to the Elite 8.
Altman has the No. 21 Oregon Ducks playing for each other. And for that reason, a deep run in the NCAA Tournament is a real possibility – way sooner than expected.
In Oregon’s 76-67 victory over the No. 24 UCLA Bruins, on the road in front of a raucous crowd at Pauley Pavilion, the Ducks overcame erratic first half shooting and a talented UCLA team with the fundamentals – good defense, hustle, and ball movement. You can attribute all of that to Altman’s coaching.
Doesn’t hurt that it’s a team full of players with something to prove. Take senior center Tony Woods, who transferred to Oregon from Wake Forest before last season. After a disappointing two seasons playing in the ACC, Woods came west, as part of a scintillating transfer class that also included Devoe Joseph, Olu Ashaolu, and Carlos Emory.
Still, Woods’ junior season paled in comparison to his fellow transfers. Always a solid defensive presence, he lacked touch around the basket and featured a free throw shot that would even make Andris Biedrins, Dwight Howard, and Shaquille O’Neal cringe. This season, Woods’ development with the ball in his hands has been remarkable, and his free throw form has slowly, but surely improved.
Stricken with the flu on Saturday, Woods had the perfect excuse to play subpar. But he didn’t. Instead, the senior had arguably his best game as a Duck – gathering 18 points on 8 of 9 shooting. Suddenly, Altman’s Ducks have a legitimate inside offensive scoring presence.
Fellow senior E.J. Singler has had a markedly different journey, the lone core holdover from the Kent era. After splashing onto the scene as the lone bright spot on a putrid 2009-2010 team, Singler has had to accept a role as less of a focal point of the offense this season. Saturday, he finished with 9 points on 3 of 8 shooting. In the final seconds of the first half, though, Singler buried one of the biggest shots of the game, a three-pointer to diminish a late-in-the-half Bruins charge and bring the Ducks’ deficit down to 3.
Arsalan Kazemi, a consistent force on the boards all season for Oregon, transferred to the program from Rice. Saturday, he put up yet another double-double, gathering 12 points and 11 rebounds. But one should expect seniors to step up in big game situations. Freshmen, that’s a different story – right?
Not Altman’s team. Point guard Dominic Artis, on a mission to mature in late game situations after a disastrous finish in an early season loss at UTEP, looked not the least bit overwhelmed in the clutch, burying key free throws and keeping the Ducks’ offense afloat down the stretch. Shooting guard Damyean Dotson, in one of his worst shooting performances of the season (2-11), accepted a more complementary role in the offense when it became clear he wouldn’t find his touch.
Forward Ben Carter, having seen inconsistent playing time throughout the season, found himself in the game – alongside Artis and Dotson, with less than five minutes to go. Instead of crumbling under the pressure, he played tenacious defense, helping to neutralize a tiring Bruins squad.
Fact is, the Ducks are not the most talented, or experienced team in the Pac-12. But they are the best – at least at this point in this season. They shoot well, rebound well, pass well, and defend well. It’s paid off, as Altman’s group has escaped the most challenging portion of their conference schedule – having beat legitimate tournament contenders Arizona, Arizona State, and UCLA.
Now, it gets a bit easier. But this conference is deceptively deep. To stay atop the Pac-12, the Ducks will need to remain focused and driven. With a coach like Altman, and a core of journeyed seniors and unfazed freshmen, Oregon may just have the formula they need.
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