The Oregon Ducks are on top of the Pac 12 standings and it should come as no surprise head coach Dana Altman appears to be taking the basketball program in Eugene to modern day heights.
Altman, the former coach at Creighton, is sometimes best known for accepting the head job at Arkansas in 2007 only to rescind his acceptance of a 5-year, $1.5 million per year contract the next day in order to stay in Omaha and not uproot his family.
But after a few more years of tremendous mid-major success with the Blue Jays, Altman took up Phil Knight and then-athletic director Pat Kilkenny’s offer of seven years at $2 million per year to resurrect an Oregon program that reached two regional finals under previous coach Ernie Kent.
Altman started his head coaching career at Marshall in 1989, but moved to Manhattan, Kansas, the next year, where he developed under-manned Kansas State into a bit of a giant-slayer – often keeping his teams in close games against conference powers. His career at Creighton spanned 16 seasons culminating in 327 wins and seven NCAA Tournament appearances.
Now in his sixth year with the Ducks, he has taken his squad to the tourney in each of the last three seasons. Oregon has reached at least the third round each time, including a loss in the regional semis in 2013.
Last Thursday might have put an exclamation point on the current state of affairs of west coast basketball when Oregon went into Tucson and snapped Arizona’s 49-game home win streak, 83-75, turning around a 90-56 road defeat to the Wildcats a year ago. After the Ducks completed the state sweep at Arizona State on Saturday, Oregon entered the week 7-2 in conference.
While the polls currently have Oregon at or near the cusp of the top 20, the Ducks have one of the strongest RPIs in the nation and should receive an extremely high-seeding should they keep up their current standing through the Pac 12 Tournament. Sophomore Dillon Brooks is the unheralded star of this team, while shot-blocking senior big man Chris Boucher is a candidate for first-team all-conference.
The Ducks get a shot at redemption on Thursday, hosting Colorado, which won the first meeting in Boulder, 91-87. Oregon then faces Utah on Sunday at Knight Arena (1 PT, ESPN2). Both the Buffaloes and the Utes entered the week in a four-way tie for second – along with USC and Washington – one game behind the Ducks.
Oregon won the first meeting this season in Utah, 77-59, and took a pair last year, including a matchup during the conference tourney at the MGM Grand. The Ducks have covered five-straight in the series, all UNDERS. OREGON, 78-65.
UCLA (+8, 160) at USC (Thur., 7:30 PT, P12N): The Bruins are in a tailspin with a 4-5 conference record and a loss not even a month ago at home to the Trojans, 89-75. The Trojans recovered from a sweep at the Oregon school to defeat both Washington teams at home last week and remain in contention for the regular season title.
The Bruins still have a dominant edge in this series, winning 10 of 11 before the season, but the win for the Trojans last month was the first in the Andy Enfield-era for SC behind Jordan McLaughlin’s 23 points. The Bruins are touting their incoming recruiting class, but this year’s unit has struggled defensively. USC, 86-80.
New Mexico (+7, 129) at San Diego State (Sun., 1 PT, CBSSN): The Aztecs improved to 9-0 in conference and are pulling away, while the Lobos have come through the field to move into second place heading into the week with a 6-2 mark.
San Diego State is constantly turning in some of the worst shooting percentages in victories, which included its largest winning margin in series history over UNLV on Saturday night. The Aztecs are one of the top defensive efficient teams in the country, which isn’t aesthetically pleasing, but certainly strong enough to take care of business in the Mountain West.
The Lobos took over the No. 2 slot following a road win at Boise State on Saturday. For all its success, San Diego State had struggled for the most part with the Lobos until last season, as the Aztecs won both meetings by double-digits. The series has produced nine straight UNDERS. SDSU, 62-59.
Ramon Scott is a Southern California-based sportswriter, covering the preps to the pros for over 25 years. Email: [email protected].