Oregon coach Dana Altman long ago cemented his status as a great coach but what he has done this season should be remembered among his greatest accomplishments.
There is really no earthly reason why this Ducks team should have won the Pac-12 Tournament, as it did tonight with a 68-48 destruction of Washington, the conference's best team during the regular season in Las Vegas, Nev., let alone reach the NCAA Tournament, which is now a certainty.
Yet, here sits Oregon ( 23-12), headed to March Madness with a serious opportunity to steal a win or two and there is only one person to point to as the main reason for this reality, and that's Altman, who successfully poked and prodded his team for months while transforming them into a defensive force that has reduced opposing offenses to mush during an eight-game winning streak.
“I think we grew up a lot as a team," Altman told reporters following Saturday night's win over the Huskies. "Everybody kind of gave themselves to the team. Everyone of them gave up a little bit of what they wanted to do for what the team needed them to do."
Getting this team to buy in was no easy task.
It became clear early on this season that the Ducks' offense was suspect. Junior guard Payton Pritchard hadn't taken the next step. Five-star recruit Louis King began the season on the sideline injured and got off to a slow start on offense when he hit the court. Only fellow five-star recruit, Bol Bol provided consistent firepower early on. But he went down for good with a foot injury before conference play began.
The Ducks began conference play with losses to Oregon State and UCLA ,and so began an up-and-down trek through the Pac-12 that had Oregon stuck around .500 before sinking into a quagmire with a messy three-game losing streak to Oregon State, USC and UCLA.
That stretch seemed to doom Oregon's chances of reaching the NCAA Tournament even if the Ducks' managed to win 20-plus games given how mediocre the conference has been all season. The only logical path would be to win the conference tournament and how could that have been viewed as a possibility for a team with what turned out to be the 10th best offense in the conference and a defense that during that three-game losing streak had allowed 228 points?
Then, something clicked on defense. During the team's current eight-game winning streak, which includes two wins over Washington (26-8), the Ducks held their opponents to 54.3 points per game. To put that number into perspective, consider that Washington, which used to have the top scoring defense in the conference, was allowing a full 10 points more per game at 64.3. Oregon surpassed them for the conference lead, entering tonight allowing 63.4.
“We had a lot of ups and downs all of us were frustrated,” Altman said. “The coaches, the players. But the resolve they showed to fight back and rally become a team and fight for each other, it was really neat to see.”
The turnaround began with a 79-51 win at home against Arizona State followed by a 73-47 win over Arizona. Those two games, Atlman said, convinced the team of what playing great defense could do for them.
“The guys really realized that we can guard like this game-in and game-out regardless of if the ball is going in, or not,” Altman said.
We'd seen this scenario play out many times before. It's become rather routine to watch Altman teams peak at the end of the season, save for last year when they missed the NCAA Tournament following losing four players to the NBA from a Final Four team.
The 2015-2016 team managed a similar rise from nowhere to reach the Elite Eight. But that team had considerably more talent than this season's team and was much better on offense. This season's team is certainly talented but is extremely offensively challenged in the half court.
So, while Altman got the 2016 team to buy in on defense, the offense came easier. This team, for the most part, remains an offensive mess but has overcome that by cranking up the defense to ridiculous levels. That has allowed the Ducks to generate offense off of turnovers and opponent's missed shots while taking pressure off of their half-court offense.
It's a lot easier to win while often struggling to score when you hold your opponents to 54 points per game.
This accomplishment occurred thanks to the team's great length and athleticism, of course, but meshing it all together in order to become a consistent force at that end of the court took time, patience and a willingness to grind at a rate that most wouldn't have the heart to endure. While it's tough to say this was Altman's greatest coaching achievement, it's certainly in the discussion. But, of course, he credits the players.
“I’ve never seen a team make that drastic of a change in a three week period,” Altman said.
Leading the charge has been Pritchard, who has taken his game to another level the past couple of weeks, especially on defense. Tonight he had 21 points and seven assists with four steals. Kenny Wooten had four blocked shots.
Who knows how much longer this joy ride will last. It might only be one more game. But that doesn't matter, at this point. What matters is that this team thrilled while simply earning the right to continue on in the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m really looking forward to continuing to play,” Altman said.
Oregon fans should be looking forward to watching this team grind on, as well.