New Oregon coach Altman faces stiff challenge in rebuilding Ducks

Publish date:

EUGENE, Ore. -- An hour before tipoff of the exhibition opener, the support staff was scrambling to update the roster. A few moments later -- just a couple of days after he'd first practiced -- Matt Losli was in uniform. And then in the game.

We introduce you to the sophomore guard not because he'll become a household name. Losli was an all-state defensive back and a decent high school basketball player, but until earlier this month, he was enjoying college life, majoring in biochemistry and playing a little intramural ball on the side. As much as anything, though, his very late, very sudden addition illustrates the difficult situation Dana Altman has inherited at Oregon.

It's not good.

Neither are the Ducks. Not much is expected, which is probably a good thing, because Altman's first Oregon team has just begun what might be a very long season. Although the scrambling to fill the roster after the offseason departure of six players is finally over -- Losli, the late walk-on, is the final addition; the Ducks have only 10 scholarship players -- the struggling has only just begun.

Here's the head coach, after winning three of his first four games (against a pillow-soft schedule): "The ride is sometimes gonna be unpleasant," Altman said. "Eventually, we'll get there." And then he spoke of obstacles, speed bumps and roadblocks.

Here are a few:

• Altman was given a seven-year deal worth $2 million annually to replace Ernie Kent after a six-week search that aimed too high (Tom Izzo! Mark Few! Jamie Dixon!). The initial idea was to hire someone with sizzle to reignite the faltering program and, as important, to reinvigorate the fan base, and after the high-profile misfires, Altman's arrival was underwhelming.

He's certainly not a showman; he's as reserved as his small-town Nebraska roots. During a solid career at Creighton, he built a reputation as a superior strategist and teacher; all of that is about to be put to the test in a massive rebuilding job.

• In January, Oregon will open Matthew Knight Arena, a 12,500-seat Taj Mahal that cost $227 million and is named for uber-booster Phil Knight's late son. It's a necessary step; 84-year-old MacArthur Court ("Mac Court") is intimate, a fantastic place to watch and play basketball, but its replacement is long overdue. It's also a risky move; Matt Court, as they're calling the new building, has nearly 3,500 more seats than Mac Court -- which was rarely filled the last couple of years.

The price tag only ratchets up the pressure to win big and to fill more seats at (slightly) higher prices. Annual debt on the arena will run about $16 million.

• As Altman arrived, players were departing, including the nucleus of one of Kent's most heralded recruiting classes. None had lived up to considerable hype, but now they weren't going to hang around to try. The biggest departure, was Michael Dunigan, a 6-foot-10 junior center. He left last August to join an Israeli pro league, and was followed by news that the NCAA was investigating his eligibility, and digging into the program's recent past (predating Altman).

The inquiry is ongoing, and although Altman can't and won't talk about it, here's his general response from a couple of months ago:

"We're all judged by how we overcome obstacles," Altman said. "This is just an obstacle we'll have to overcome."

To fill the holes, Altman added well-traveled guard Jay-R Strowbridge (after playing at Nebraska and Jacksonville State, he took advantage of an NCAA rule that allows players who have graduated to transfer and play immediately) and German freshman Martin Seiferth. And of course, a couple of walk-ons to ensure they had enough players to practice.

Earlier this month, Altman took significant steps for the future, signing a highly touted recruiting class highlighted by Oakland, Calif., shooting guard Jabari Brown. The Ducks should be significantly better next season. And while the coach says there are no excuses, he has also, correctly, called this a "transition year."

But after cobbling together a roster, Altman's trying to field a competitive squad. The task was made more difficult when Strowbridge missed time with a broken nose and dislocated thumb, injuries sustained in a preseason scrimmage with Nevada. Also, forward Jeremy Jacob, the Ducks' tallest player at 6-8, missed several weeks after minor knee surgery, and is only now being eased back into activity.

Monday afternoon at practice, Altman was putting his team through remedial rebounding drills. One player took a jump shot. Another tried to get the rebound. A third player -- and the coach's focus was here -- tried to prevent it.

"Everybody's a rebounder!" Altman kept saying. "Until we start thinking that way ..." -- he didn't finish.

Moments later, the Ducks practiced taking charges. And then the coach suddenly began tossing basketballs downcourt, yelling for the players run them down and dive on them. And when practice was over, he explained the drills very simply: "We're not very fundamentally sound."

This was two days after Oregon's first loss, a come-from-ahead disappointment against San Jose State. It was the first of many, if the predictions are to be believed (Oregon is the consensus pick to finish 10th in the Pac-10, and that's probably only because it hasn't expanded to 12 yet). Despite a 3-1 record heading into Tuesday night's game with Texas Southern, it's apparent the predictions should be believed.

The Ducks are small, and not burdened with great talent. They're not good shooters, not good defenders. There's not a strength to build an identity around. Or a household name to build around, either. The best player is probably Joevan Catron, an undersized (6-6) senior post who missed last season to injury. He's shown signs of becoming a passionate leader, on and off the court, but whether he can sustain his production against better competition is uncertain.

And it's about to get a lot more difficult. On Saturday, Oregon plays top-ranked Duke in Portland -- Mike Krzyzewski's way of getting Kyle Singler back to his home state (and playing against his younger brother, Oregon sophomore forward E.J. Singler). Then Missouri. And then, after a few more soft nonconference opponents, the Pac-10 schedule.

The league appears to be down again this year. But the Ducks don't look like much of a threat to climb out of the cellar, and Altman can't help but be reminded of his first season at Creighton 16 years ago. The Bluejays had won seven games the previous year, and not many more the two years before that. The new coach came in, changed everything -- and won seven games.

By the time Altman left, Creighton basketball was an established mid-major power. The Bluejays regularly filled Qwest Center Omaha, a $291 million downtown arena that was built in large part because of the small Catholic school's hoops success.

"We had a big-picture plan," Altman said, "and it wasn't a year-to-year survival. ... In some regards we're trying to figure out the same thing here. We want to figure out how we can be consistent, how we can generate interest with our fans and fill that beautiful building.

"So we've really got a lot of challenges ahead of us."

The goal remains to win right away. But the reality is that the Ducks are building for the future.

"We want to build a foundation we know is good," Altman said. "We know there are gonna be some bumps along the way. There are gonna be some roadblocks."

For a while, at least, the ride will be unpleasant.