Familiarity reigns as Oregon, Oklahoma State prepare to play
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) Oregon coach Dana Altman walked through the corridors of the CenturyLink Center on Thursday, a sense of familiarity washing over him with every hug and handshake.
Altman spent 16 seasons at Creighton, the last half of them with Bluejays making their home at the glitzy riverfront arena. Now he is back with the eighth-seeded Ducks as they prepare to open the NCAA Tournament against ninth-seeded Oklahoma State in the West Region on Friday night.
''Coach is real excited,'' the Ducks' Elgin Cook said with a smile. ''He coached here for so long, the least we can do is come out and play hard for him.''
Altman grew up in the small town of Wilber, about 90 miles southwest of the arena. Much of his family still lives in the area, a big reason he had more than 50 ticket requests.
''It's great to be back,'' he said, pausing. ''And it'll be great if we win.''
No sure thing in part because of, well, familiarity.
The Ducks (25-9) played the Cowboys (18-13) just two years ago in the NCAA Tournament. And while the teams are vastly different in terms of personnel - Oregon without a single player still on its roster from that game - their coaching staffs are largely the same.
That means Altman and Oklahoma State counterpart Travis Ford should be well-prepared.
''I think both teams do have a few things very similar,'' Ford acknowledged. ''The teams are different, but there's familiarity. When the names popped up there, you know, `Oregon!' And I'm sure they said, `Oh, Oklahoma State again.' Just familiar.''
The teams also are similar in style and substance.
Both are perimeter-oriented, their guards capable of scoring in bunches. Both have struggled in the paint, with their lack of size contributing to terrible rebounding stats. And both went through stretches this season where the challenge of earning an at-large bid was daunting.
For the Ducks, it was early in the season, when they lost three of their first five games. For the Cowboys, it was late in the season, when they lost six of their last seven.
''We haven't played or probably succeeded as well as we'd have liked lately,'' Ford said, ''but this is a brand new opportunity for our team to play.''
There is one big difference between that game two years ago. The Cowboys were a No. 5 seed with massive expectations back then, and the 12th-seeded Ducks pulled the upset.
''This is an eight-nine game,'' said Le'Bryan Nash, the Cowboys' leading scorer. ''They think we're equal, so it's anybody's game.''
WHO'S NEXT: The downside of being in an eight-nine game is the likelihood that a No. 1 seed awaits the winner. In this case, that could be Big Ten champion Wisconsin. The Badgers play No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina in their opener Friday night.
AWKWARD REUNION: Oregon star Joseph Young played two seasons at Houston for coach James Dickey, but transferred when his father, Michael Young, was reassigned from his job as director of basketball operations for the Cougars to a largely meaningless public relations position.
Dickey later resigned, and joined the Cowboys' staff as an assistant last spring.
''He's a good coach. It's not about that,'' Young said of seeing Dickey again. ''That's just another thing, something that happened a long time ago. It's over with.''
NO REGRETS: Many thought Nash, a highly decorated prep player, would jet to the NBA after one season. Turns out, so did he. But here he is, a senior still wearing black and orange.
''To be honest, I was caught up on the hype that everybody else had for me,'' he said. ''But I'm glad, I'm blessed. And I still have an opportunity to get better.''
COBBINS' COMEBACK: Cowboys forward Michael Cobbins missed the NCAA Tournament a year ago after tearing his Achilles tendon prior to Big 12 play. He returned this season to lead Oklahoma State in rebounding, despite the 6-foot-8 senior often facing bigger opposition.
''It's a little overwhelming, really emotion, but just a humbling feeling as well,'' Cobbins said, ''and a sense of excitement, just to be back out here with all of these guys.''
HELPING HAND: Altman spoke to Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, his longtime friend, shortly after the brackets were revealed Sunday. The Sooners swept the Cowboys in three matchups this season.
''Our teams play differently,'' Altman said, ''so I'm not sure there's much we can get from Oklahoma's series. ... He's got his own game to worry about. He's not too worried about mine.''