Canzano: Dana Altman left punching off the ropes
My thoughts on the scene in Eugene.
EUGENE — The game was over and most of the fans had already filed out of Matthew Knight Arena and headed home. Media covering the event waited in the basement, inside the post-game interview room, for Oregon’s Dana Altman.
The 65-year-old coach would take his time getting there. He was still sitting on the bench out on the court. Altman retreated there, and sat alone for a beat, before making his way to the news conference after Arizona’s 87-78 victory on Saturday.
The coach was absorbed in thought but watched two young children try to dribble the basketball around the court. At one point, they lost control of the ball. It rolled to Altman’s feet and the coach managed a slight smile.
Basketball has been good to Dana Altman. He fell in love with the game as a community college student in southeast Nebraska. He couldn’t have known at the time that the game would stay by his side for the next five decades. But I wondered on Saturday as I watched Altman suffer whiplash for the umpteenth time, how much more of this the guy can take.
Are we watching Altman’s swan song?
I spoke with the Oregon coach 1-on-1 a couple of weeks ago. He talked candidly about the impact of agents, the transfer portal, and NIL deals. The sands of college athletics have shifted beneath his Nike sneakers. And for the last three seasons, I’ve wondered how much fun the UO coach was having.
“For 40 years that I was doing this,” he told me, “the worst thing that could be said about you is that you bought players.
“Now, that’s part of the equation.”
Altman has mastered the game of basketball. He’s a skilled teacher and his teams are a difficult out. He almost always finds a way to get his roster to play its best basketball at the right time. It’s why people expected Oregon might beat No. 9 Arizona on Saturday. After all, Altman had done exactly that six straight times at home.
The Oregon coach sat, stoic, on that bench on Saturday after the game. He eventually peeled himself off the seat and took the walk to that post-game news conference. Altman’s first word upon entering the room was “disappointed.”
With the outcome.
With the defense.
With an ugly leg injury to Keeshawn Barthelemy, who had to be carried off the court.
“Injuries are the one thing that really takes away from the fun,” Altman said. “Seeing him like that… he really was playing good, really had a flow going there. Just really sad to see.”
Barthelemy got tangled up in a fast break in the second half. He was in agony on the court, holding his leg and ankle. Altman rushed to his side, took a knee, put his arms around the senior guard, and cradled the player as trainers decided what to do next.
Said Altman: “It wasn’t good.”
The arena operations staff didn’t notice. Or refused to deviate from the scheduled time-out activities. Whatever the case, what followed was a tone-deaf display that left Oregon football coach Dan Lanning in a terrible spot.
The game-day operation at Matthew Knight Arena needs an overhaul. Not the building, the actual in-game operations. It’s formulaic and scripted. There’s no thought given to the flow of the game and how timeouts, public-address announcements, the band, DJ, and emcee contribute to the energy in the building. The fan contests and T-shirt giveaways on Saturday were fine, but there’s no general awareness of rhythm, and that manifested itself with Lanning being thrust onto the court Saturday (video) while Barthelemy was facing the end of his college basketball career.
I’m not blaming Lanning for speaking. I don’t think the football coach was aware of how dire the injury was at the other end of the court. Lanning couldn’t have possibly been tuned in. He was in the tunnel when it happened. But some in the crowd were aghast as it unfolded.
Altman was on the court cradling Barthelemy when the UO football team was herded out of the tunnel on the opposite end of the floor. Someone handed Lanning a microphone and the coach began hyping the crowd up about his team’s Fiesta Bowl win, weight room, and some off-season additions.
Meanwhile, paramedics wheeled a stretcher to the other end of the court. Altman helped lift Barthelemy. Two Oregon staff members then carried the guard off the court and out the arena tunnel while Lanning reminded the cheering crowd of the program’s April 27 spring game and said “… the grass is damn green in Eugene.”
Is Oregon a ‘basketball school’?
Remember that silly debate?
In 2020, Altman was the highest-paid public employee in the state. He’d been to a Final Four and a couple of Elite Eights. Then, amid the pandemic, came back-to-back league titles and another trip to the Sweet 16. But just three seasons later, I wonder how much fun that guy is still having.
The 2021-22 season ended in the second round of the NIT. I remember thinking at the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas early that spring that Altman hated his team. The same goes for last season — and another NIT finish. The locker room culture was broken. Everyone could see it. Altman’s task looked disjointed and difficult. And his frustration boiled over after the season-ending loss to Wisconsin in front of 3,300 fans.
“If it’s me, then get rid of me,” the coach said.
“Make the change,” he added. “Somebody will hire me somewhere. I'll go coach junior college ball. I love junior college ball. Those guys are dogs. They want to be in the gym all the time. I love those guys. But 3,300 people? For Wisconsin? I’m disappointed.”
There’s that word again — disappointed.
I don’t blame the guy. Saturday was a sellout. Oregon was in sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 standings. And Arizona was in town. There was a buzz surrounding the event.
Altman had navigated the bulk of the season without his two big men — N’Faly Dante and Nate Bittle. He got creative, as he does, anchoring his offensive attack around freshman Jackson Shelstad and Kwame Evans Jr. It worked, too. The Ducks went 14-5 and were undefeated at home. But UO basketball fans had “Jan. 27 vs. Arizona” circled on their calendars and 12,364 showed up in person.
Dante and Bittle were back in the lineup together after early-season surgeries. Altman’s program had weathered a storm of injuries. If Oregon was going to punch its way into the NCAA Tournament field as an at-large team, Saturday was an ideal opportunity to get a quality victory in front of the selection committee.
Then, the game tipped off.
And the Ducks never led.
Arizona guard Caleb Love scored 36 points. After his first made basket, Love sprinted past the Oregon student section and shouted — “shut the f**k up!” — on his way back down the court. The Ducks never found an answer for Love. It was a sobering defeat. One that came with an injury that leaves Altman with a hole in his rotation.
Altman takes the losses hard. We’ve seen him strike a somber tone before. He fights well off the ropes. He’ll regroup. It’s what good coaches do. But I was left thinking he might not sleep well on Saturday night.
Maybe Dana Altman will coach to the very end of his current contract. It runs through 2028. Maybe he’ll end this season smiling and joyful. He has winnable games against USC and UCLA next week. Maybe he goes 2-0 and skips back to the team charter. But I’m left today thinking about that little post-game scene.
Not the news conference.
The scene upstairs on the court beforehand.
Altman looked like a guy with a lot on his mind.
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