It is rarified air for sure - The No. 1 seed in the West Bracket. Just the sight of that seems surreal to look at that. Even though the Ducks were the very first team to ever win the NCAA Tournament way back in 1939, and they weren’t even known as the Ducks then, trying to grasp that this program could emerge as a contender for a national championship is hard to do.
But it is a fact; Oregon now is among the basketball elite.
Looking back at the tradition of Oregon, there have been some exciting teams – the Kamikaze Kids of Dick Harter in the 70s that had a high flying Ronny Lee who could take off from the free throw line and drop the ball in (dunking was not allowed during Lee’s time).
Greg Ballard, a solid and tough rebounder who could shoot from the elbow. Ballard went on to have a great NBA career, after being drafted in the first round, number four pick by the Washington Bullets, where he spent the 1977-85 season and was part the Bullets ’78 Champions team. Later he played two seasons at Golden State before finally closing out his NBA playing career with the Sonics while they were still the Supersonics in Seattle and the arch-rival of the Portland Trailblazers.
Lee may have been the most incredible athlete ever at Oregon. He could have played football or soccer. Before he showed up in Eugene, Duck basketball labored along, like everyone else in the Pac-8, in the shadows of UCLA, who could boast legendary basketball names like Alcinder, Allen, Goodrich, Erickson, Wicks and Rowe.
When Dick Harter came to town, a gritty, no-non sense coach, steeped in the Philadelphia tradition of how basketball should be played, introduced a defensive oriented concept where floor burns were the norm for Oregon players and hustle was a constant.
Harter moved on and the Ducks went through some tough periods at MacArthur Court and it wasn’t until the return of one of the Kamikaze Kids, Ernie Kent, did Oregon become team that people were anxious about. Kent was at his Alma Mater for 13 seasons and led the Ducks to five NCAA trips, with two of those teams making it to the Elite-8. His 2001-02 team outright won the regular season conference championship.
Kent’s time though at Oregon hit a huge skid as often does in college coaching and he left just as the new Matthew Knight Arena was being built and Altman was hired. Part of the reason for Kent’s departure was that he had managed to bring in a recruiting class that showed great promise, but in 2009-10 season, his predominately freshmen team finished the year at 16-16 and tied for eighth place in the conference. The problem for Altman in his first year was that nearly all those highly touted recruits departed from Oregon after Kent left. Altman faced a huge challenge of having enough bodies to man a roster for the season.
However, Altman picked up some transfers, had a couple of players from Kent’s team stay on, and somehow cobbled out a 21-18 season and won the CBI Championship. It demonstrated things to come in Oregon basketball.
Some had questioned the hire of Altman, even though he had spent 16 seasons at Creighton and won 326 games, gone to the NCAAs seven times, he hadn’t won any NCAA championships and his soft spoken style was a bit different than Duck fans were used to after watching Chip Kelly and the Ducks roll across the landscape in football. Oregon had built the best facilities thanks primarily to the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Phil Knight along with other donors including donor turned Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny, who brought Altman to Oregon. Many thought Oregon’s success in basketball would be instantaneous, but the reality is the Ducks had much to accomplish and while Altman’s job in the first season was remarkable, he still had a ways to go.
Along the way to go, Altman only managed to string six 20-win seasons, and four NCAA trips including this season and a No. 1 seed.
During the Pac-12 Tournament this season in which the Ducks won, Kilkenny and Knight sat near each other and one has to wonder the joy and sense of accomplishment these two generous and humble men felt watching the Ducks win the Tournament for the second time in Altman’s tenure as head coach.
So, the Ducks are in the NCAA Tournament as No. 1 seed, by playing a brand of solid, fundamental basketball that relies on a team effort. This isn’t a team of a bunch of one-and-done flashes that will play an obligatory one year in college before signing a nice fat NBA contract. This is a team of hard workers, who have demonstrated that they can play with anyone and now everyone see just how far they can go to repeat what that team in 1939 did – win the NCAA championship.
It is rarified air indeed, but win or lose the story of the Ducks is not over and no matter what happens will be on the NCAA scene for a longtime to come.