From sweet to elite: Duck vision

INDIANAPOLIS — Dana Altman was seemingly headed for being a coach even while he was still a player, back in high school in Wilber, Neb.

"He wasn't a great player, but he was a smart player," said his father, Lyle Altman. "He knew the game pretty well, that's how he got his playing time.

"He always knew what was going on out there."

Fathers often do know best, and it would be hard to argue against that opinion of Altman now, with 606 wins in a 28-year career as a head coach and the opportunity for maybe the biggest of them all as he takes Oregon into tonight's game against Louisville in the NCAA tournament.

Outside of the Oregon program, it may look like the Ducks (28-8) can call this season a success, regardless of what happens against Louisville (31-5), which carries the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament into this Midwest regional semifinal.

And yet, Altman isn't quite ready to say, "good job, guys," and move on if the outcome is what everyone seems to expect.

"We want to keep playing," Altman insisted this week. "We expect good things to happen for us. We're going to go in there and swing away."

In Altman's three seasons at Oregon, the Ducks are 73-36, which is one win short of the most ever recorded by the school in that time span. In those three years, the program has gone from the College Basketball Invitational, which it won, to three games in the National Invitation Tournament last year, to a pair of wins in this NCAA tournament, only the fifth time the school has recorded that many victories in an appearance.

Success? Let others measure that. From the day he was hired, Altman hasn't been one to set any kind of firm goal for his program, or his team.

"We have to get better," is his usual statement, whether it's the first practice on Oct. 15, or early this year when the Ducks were 17-2 and ranked 10th in the nation. Or he'll suggest, "there's more there," no matter how his team has played.

If improvement is gauged by how a team finishes a season, consider some of Altman's numbers at Oregon. His Ducks are 5-2 in the conference tournament. With the two wins last weekend in San Jose, Calif., Oregon under Altman is 9-2 in postseason games. That's 14-4 in what are essentially elimination games.

Now, granted that includes the CBI (5-1) and NIT (2-1), not exactly the NCAA tournament, but those first two Oregon teams with Altman in charge weren't quite worthy of the Big Dance either.

So what will be success this spring? Asked that before the tournament, Altman was his usual self, not making any firm statement on how far he wanted the Ducks to go. His mantra was, win some games.

And certainly Altman has also been hesitant to make any all-encompassing statements about how he has resurrected the program. He's certainly said he's proud of what the Ducks have done, but he might well have noted that his two predecessors as UO coach also got the Ducks to the NCAA tournament in their third seasons, and how did that end for Jerry Green or Ernie Kent?

In fact, even when given the opportunity — more than once — to follow the path of coaches who choose to deride the state of the program when they took over, Altman has instead offered words of praise for what Kent accomplished at Oregon.

"Ernie did a great job here for a long time," Altman said recently. "We're just trying to do something different "… he went to two final eights (of the NCAA tournament) and that's a great success story for any program."

What the Ducks tried to offer was the support for a program and setting in a major conference so that it could go all the way to the top, with football serving as the prime example of how Oregon could win conference titles, and compete on the national stage.

Altman ticked off other examples of Oregon teams being successful against any and all competition, stating "our track has been awfully good and baseball is coming on, softball is pretty good, volleyball had a great year. There are a lot of good things going on at Oregon "… we hope to be part of that."

Well, here the basketball Ducks are, about to play one of the nation's elite programs, in the spotlight of a CBS prime time broadcast, before what's likely to be the largest crowd to ever watch Oregon play basketball.

Think of the coaches alone who will be on the sidelines at Lucas Oil Stadium tonight: Rick Pitino of Louisville, Tom Izzo of Michigan State, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke "… and, yes, Dana Altman of Oregon.

"Well there's one name that obviously doesn't fit with the other three," Altman said. "Their resumes put mine to shame. Those guys have all won national championships, they're all hall of fame coaches. It'll be a challenge for our team and our coaching staff but we are excited about that challenge."

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