Canzano: Oregon Ducks' basketball loss sends Dana Altman on a new mission
Coach says the trust factor wasn't there this season.
Jacob Young and the Oregon Ducks were eliminated from the Pac-12 Tournament on Thursday.
LAS VEGAS — Dana Altman sounded frustrated — and a little funny — on Thursday. The Oregon Ducks men’s basketball coach had just watched his team fumble around the court before being eliminated from the conference tournament by Colorado in an 80-69 loss and now he was making jokes.
“We had aspirations of going to the Rose Bowl but we’re going to the Weedeater Bowl,” he said.
There will be no NCAA Tournament berth for the Ducks this season. They’ll wait for an NIT bid and play on. Still, Altman arrived at the post-game news conference at T-Mobile Arena with a couple of players, a profound understanding of what went wrong, and his sense of humor.
Forgive him for not sounding angry or pounding a fist on the table top. What would being grumpy solve at this point? I suspect Altman blew past that stage weeks ago amid one of the 14 losses his mercurial team suffered this season.
These Ducks were terrific in moments, weren’t they? Equally awful in others, though. Anyone watching Altman dip his head, clench his fists and grit his teeth this season understands it’s been unusually trying for the 63-year old coach. So much so that a high-level UO booster sent Altman a case of wine mid-season, presumably to help him get through it.
After Thursday’s elimination I asked Altman what he thought went wrong in 2021-22. In the end, his team looked disjointed and out of rhythm. Not at all like the buttoned-up, efficient, talented, focused operation that used the last six seasons to win four Pac-12 Conference championships and reach a Final Four.
“We've tried to set a standard at Oregon that we try to meet,” said Altman, “and I just felt like for the first time in a long time we didn't meet that standard."
Oregon’s coach isn’t new to the transfer game. Altman didn’t invent it, but he’s tried to perfect it over the years. He’s typically used the offseason months for team building, workouts, and he even once scheduled some approved exhibition games. It often works but what happened this time?
A knee injury, Altman pointed out.
An ACL recovery, he noted.
Academic issues, he said.
“The trust factor wasn’t there,” Altman said. “These guys all had opinions on how the games should go and a lot of times it didn’t match mine.”
Altman will be paid $3.5 million for his headache this season. Don’t feel sorry for him, but it’s fine to wonder what a season like this might do to his psyche. There have been whispers in media circles about how much longer he’ll coach, but he waves that off without much follow-up. It doesn’t feel like he’s going anywhere anytime soon.
His contract runs five more seasons and is worth $19 million in base salary alone. Altman’s annual retention bonuses are six-figure paydays, too. Coaches value job security and financial freedom, but I wondered as I watched Altman smile and shake his head in the post-game scene if there weren’t a few redeeming things to take from this season.
A) It’s essentially over.
B) Altman has spun out of underwhelming seasons before with deft skill and wonderful results. He’s performed makeovers before. In fact, the year after he took UO to the Final Four, he landed in the NIT. But Oregon immediately regrouped and won two of the next three conference titles.
C) Oregon is now on a renewed mission in the high seas of major college basketball, but it’s guided by coach who has proof of buoyancy.
I think what Altman got this season was a refreshed challenge more than anything. Also a reminder that in today’s NCAA world (See: transfer portal) you’re working without a trusted safety net. He’ll soon be done with this team and facing the annual rebuild that just about every coach in America now endures. I think, oddly, Altman is more equipped than others to pivot. He’s been doing it for years.
It’s fair to look around the Pac-12 right now and assess the landscape. Arizona is humming under coach Tommy Lloyd. Mick Cronin has UCLA playing a fun brand of basketball. If Oregon is going to win big again in this conference it will have to scale those two skyscrapers. Also, USC looks solid and some others in the conference have improved. But I don’t think any of that is where Altman’s head was on Thursday night.
He smiled often after the loss. He laughed, a little. He dropped a couple of jokes. I mean, I guess what more can you do when your team takes Arizona to the wire, beats UCLA — raises the expectations to March’s rafters — then drops four of the next five games?
Said Altman: “We won 19 games and we should have won more.”