All season long Oregon head coach Dana Altman stressed following win or loss, blowout or nail-biter, that his Oregon team had room to improve. Didn’t matter who the Ducks played or beat to a pulp the Duck head coach was never entirely pleased with his team’s effort.
Until the final game of the regular season.
“I think we've turned into a pretty good team. I like the way we play, I like the way we play together. We've made tremendous progress since November,” said Altman Saturday afternoon deep within Matthew Knight Arena.
It seemed like the coach was getting teeth pulled to say it but he finally admitted his 22-8 and 13-5 Oregon team is a pretty good team.
And let’s be honest here, they are.
Oregon was a pre-season prediction to finish 5th in the Pac-12 this season behind an integration of transfers, seniors, and a few elite recruits signed over the off-season.
But the Ducks didn’t click right away and players left the team for greener pastures before the pasture Altman planted even germinated.
But the Ducks kept working and kept improving and while the Pac-12 isn’t very good this season and the Ducks have work left to do to prove they belong in the NCAA Tournament this team and this program has returned to being fun, exciting, and most importantly dangerous.
“I am not sure a lot surprised me,” said Altman on recapping his second season at Oregon. “I am just really pleased. We struggled early and they stayed with it. I thought the guys that were returning kept everybody believing that we are going to get going. That we just have to keep working together and stay together and eventually we will get better.
Altman likely will not win Pac-12 Coach of the Year as that title will fall on Washington’s Lorenzo Romar or maybe Cal’s Mike Montgomery.
But the award should be given to Altman and it shouldn’t be a debate.
Cal and Washington were supposed to be good. They had the elite talent and most importantly they had the talent returning from last year’s teams.
Sure they lost pieces. Romar lost his starting point guard Isaiah Thomas. Montgomery lost some key depth.
But so did Altman and the Ducks. Gone was their heart and soul Joevan Catron from last year’s team. Gone was starting point guard Malcolm Armstead who left in the spring. Regular Teondre Williams also left.
Keep in mind Washington brought back Terrence Ross and C.J. Wilcox and added five-star guard Tony Wroten JR. All three NBA players. Cal brought back their big three in Jorge Gutierrez, Allen Crabbe, and Harper Kamp.
Oregon? Junior E.J. Singler and Senior Garrett Sim were all that was left from last year’s team that played major minutes.
The Ducks were lucky to get a trip over-seas to Italy in August to help work on implementing the seven new players and the Ducks seemed as if the transition would go smoothly.
The losses caused the Ducks, already searching for balance, more unbalance early in the year.
The Ducks play showed it too. They struggled to put the ball in the basket. They struggled to defend. Rebounding, steals, assists, all down from last season.
But Altman and his team kept working and kept grinding. They got better, slowly.
A blowout win at Washington State to open the Pac-12 was impressive. A solid win at home against Stanford was another solid win. A grind it out road victory at Arizona followed shortly.
And maybe it was a loss to rival Oregon State this season at home that really opened this team’s eyes.
Since that loss this team has been different. They’ve looked like an NCAA Tournament team. They’ve played like it too.
Since falling to Oregon State the Ducks have gone 7-2 with some tough wins and some impressive wins. This team is different from their games in November and December. The players are playing better and have bought into the system.
Their record shows it too as the Ducks finished with back-to-back 20-win seasons and going 22-8 and 13-5 in Pac-12 play.
“I am just glad they stayed with it,” said Altman Saturday and I am sure his players are glad they stuck with it too