College basketball has its blue blood programs, the Dukes and Kentuckys of the world. Then there are another 20 or so who fall below that blue blood standing, but are annual threats near the top of the sport’s landscape. While it is always a very fluid — and mostly fictional — power ranking list, the Oregon Ducks are quickly moving up the ladder.
It is an odd journey upward, too. This isn’t strictly the linear annual growth of a program. This is a team led by a coach who could have been embroiled in a great scandal that has become better, when it could have been so much worse.
When Dana Altman took over the program in 2010, the Nike-money that was helping to turn Oregon football into a national power had not yet been felt in the basketball program. Instead, the previous era of Ducks basketball — a fine one, it is worth noting — was consistent with any other solid but unspectacular major conference program.
Then Altman arrived, as did more resources, and after two solid seasons in which the Ducks failed to make the NCAA Tournament despite 20-plus wins, the coach began an annual march to take his program to… March.
There were hiccups along the way, the sort that aren’t easy to forget in today’s sports climate.
A woman who accused three former Oregon players of sexual assault sued Altman in 2015. The lawsuit alleged that the coach knew when he recruited Brandon Austin that the player had been suspended from Providence College due to allegations of sexual misconduct. For context, Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis were the other two alleged perpetrators. They were dismissed from the team in May 2014, and later suspended a minimum of four years from school, as a result of the allegations.
It is important to note (big note, actually) that the accuser voluntarily dismissed her charges against the coach.
Here is where I’ll acknowledge I’m not a lawyer, and that I do not specialize in any of the above situations. However, it is important to note that whenever we discuss sports, we tend to do so while mostly focusing on perception and not actual fact — which can eliminate the need for fairness to be applied.
Strangely enough, that entire ordeal has been a blip on the national radar. Rarely, if ever, do we hear, read, or see anyone discuss Altman and the Oregon program in terms relative to a scandal that would otherwise rock most universities to their very foundations.
Then again, maybe this is the rare case of people actually allowing due process to play its part… or, more skeptically, not enough people care about college basketball and/or the Oregon program to have their attention spans stay with the story. Or it can simply be a more neutral process: More information came out, and while the other aspects of this are also true (people just not caring), it has become more a footnote than a matter of record that there was once a scandal at a power program.
For all intents and purposes, that’s some context to paint this current picture, which is slightly insane when you think about it. It isn’t meant to besmirch anyone.
Here we have Oregon, fresh off its first ever number-one seed in the Big Dance, a program expected to yet again be battling near the top-four best teams in the nation this season, and the program is parlaying its current few year run of success into recruiting trail awesomeness.
In short: The Ducks had a top-20 recruiting class for the 2016 season, and with a rather late start to the 2017 recruiting wars, Altman recently landed top-100 recruit Victor Bailey.
Is this a portrait of extraordinary success? Of course not. Other major conference programs are recruiting at similar, if not better, rates. At the exact same time, though, few are in a position to have back-to-back one-seeds in the NCAA Tournament, which would further increase the program’s stature.
After all, it is not hard to imagine Oregon going back to the Big Dance as a one-seed again this season. Then the best high school players in the nation will take notice, which can in turn make the Ducks an “it” program — provided that billions of more nuanced variables also fall in the Ducks’ favor.
Duke wasn’t DUKE until Coach K helped it become so. The same can be said of UConn and Jim Calhoun, Mark Few lifting Gonzaga, and so on. Whether or not Altman can turn Oregon into a true blue blood program remains to be seen, but it is hard to bet against it.
Even if only thinking about it from a logistical standpoint: Altman has overcome a scandal which — fair or not — would otherwise ruin a program or its coach; has used all the resources afforded to him and done well with them; and is currently in a rinse and repeat cycle with a team that will have a national stage throughout this season.
Who knows if it will actually happen? Not you. Not me. At best, we’d all be engaging in barely-educated guessing. All things being equal, however, there’s no real reason to think the growth of the Oregon Ducks basketball program will stop anytime soon. Rather, more evidence points to continued growth with very few obstacles in its way.