Dana Altman was brought to Eugene to coach the Oregon basketball team and, at the time, it was hoped that he would bring the Ducks close to their winning ways of just a few years earlier and build a consistent program that could contend for conference titles. Just coming close to former coach Ernie Kent’s Elite 8 appearances would be more than good enough.
Never in their wildest dreams did the Ducks think Altman would take them to their current level. As they enter the 2016-17 season, the Ducks not only hope but are expected to win the Pac-12 regular season title, be one of the top seeds in the NCAA tournament and go to their first Final 4 since 1939.
Whether the Ducks fulfill these expectations depends on how they handle the pressure of being the favorite. It’s new territory for this basketball program. In previous runs through the Big Dance, advancing one game from the Final 4 was surprising. Actually making the National Semifinal still seemed like a dream.
Fair or not, many will say that if Oregon doesn’t make a significant run in the NCAA tournament, one that ends in Glendale, Ariz. on that final Saturday, the season will be considered a failure. As it is, most pre-season polls have Oregon in their Top 10, some in the Top 5, and one national magazine has named the Ducks the preseason No. 1 team.
The rankings and the expectations are all completely fair, not putting any unrealistic pressure on Altman’s squad, the majority of whom advanced to the Elite 8 a year ago. Oregon managed to retain its best player in Dillon Brooks, a likely first round draft pick who opted to return for his junior year. Unfortunately, he is dealing with a foot injury that may keep him sidelined until the conference season begins in January.
In previous years, a calamity like this would have meant kissing the season goodbye and looking forward to the next one. But Altman has recruited more than just stars. He has been able to develop depth in the program to a point where they can withstand Brooks’ absence for some time. For sure, they don’t want to be without him for the entire year, but they can survive for the first couple months of the season.
“We’re going to have to play a little differently. Dillon is so versatile. We can play him on the inside because he’s big enough to bounce around. He loves beating on guys on the inside,” Altman said after the team came back from a summer tour in Spain. “His skill level has developed enough in the last couple of years to where we can play him away from the basket.”
Along with the depth Altman has created with this team, he also has a roster of leaders that can deal with the pressures of important games. In addition to Brooks, the Ducks have seniors Chris Boucher and Dylan Ennis and juniors Jordan Bell and Casey Benson, all of whom have played significant minutes for the Ducks and know what to expect when the big game arrives. They won’t be blinded by the bright lights of tournament games.
Altman has recruited Top 10 classes that can also help out until Brooks is at 100 percent. It could be that Brooks’ absence will be a blessing in disguise, forcing the younger players to gain experience in front of big crowds. Then, when the conference games start, they shouldn’t be intimidated by the atmosphere.
“I like the optimism,” Altman said of the expectations of this year’s team. “The most encouraging things if that everyone has tried and n body has been left behind. They’ve all worked out and tried to get involved. There’s no one who hasn’t made great effort and they’ve all kept themselves in the hunt.”
The Ducks want more than to be in the hunt, however; and how they react to being the hunted will determine how far they can really go.