ANAHEIM, Calif.—Thursday’s Sweet 16 showdown between Duke and Oregon promises to be full of great matchups on the court—Brandon Ingram against Dillon Brooks, the Ducks’ press versus the Blue Devil ball-handlers and 7-footer Marshall Plumlee battling the shot-blocking prowess of Chris Boucher.
But the best matchup of all could well be on the sidelines.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski and Oregon head coach Dana Altman have met once before, albeit under much different circumstances. It was the beginning of the 2010-11 season—Altman’s first at the helm for the Ducks—while Krzyzewski was coming off his fourth national championship in 20 years.
Altman had spent the previous 16 seasons at mid-major Creighton, and had the bad fortune of running into a powerhouse Blue Devil team in just his sixth-ever game at Oregon. The outcome was not pretty for Altman and his Ducks—Duke marched into Portland, Ore., and pounded out a 98-71 victory, led by 30 points from Kyle Singler.
“I’d rather forget that game, but that was our first year and we were not very good,” Altman said. “We had guys that really wanted to be there and really wanted to compete. But I think Duke was coming off a national championship there also and they got us pretty good.”
Despite that early-season setback, that 2010-11 Oregon team went on to win 21 games—a mark it has eclipsed in each of the ensuing five seasons. Thanks to this instant run of success—in addition to his prolific run and seven NCAA tournament appearances with the Blue Jays—Altman has now compiled a winning record for 18 straight seasons, joining the elite company of Krzyzewski, Bill Self, Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo and Roy Williams.
After a solid 24-10 campaign in 2011-12, Altman broke through in his third season and took Oregon to the Big Dance with a 28-9 record. As a 12 seed, the Ducks demolished fifth-seeded Oklahoma State and fourth-seeded St. Louis during the tournament’s opening weekend—with the two victories coming by a combined 30 points—to reach the Sweet 16.
There, Oregon met its match in eventual national champion Louisville, but the March Madness success gave a stamp of legitimacy to a basketball program at a school better known for its football. Since that run, the Ducks have reached the NCAA tournament in each of the last three seasons, starting to attract top talent and finally nabbing a No. 1 seed for this year’s tournament.
“[Altman has] done a great job. You can tell they’re a very well-coached team and they’re very talented as well,” Duke sophomore Grayson Allen said. “Look at the team they have—they have a combination of young guys. [Tyler] Dorsey is a really good freshman and older guys as well. So to have that combination, I mean, he’s doing a good job there.”
Now Altman is back in the Sweet 16, on the doorstep of solidifying himself as one of college basketball’s top coaches. He has all but mastered the regular season, reaching the 30-win plateau this year to set the single-season mark in Eugene, Ore. Altman also has a National Coach of the Year award and two Pac-12 Coach of the Year awards to his name, thanks to his first half-dozen seasons that are now the most successful in Oregon history.
But the postseason success that has always eluded Altman—who is just 8-10 in the NCAA tournament—will be staring at him across the court Thursday in the form of Krzyzewski. As Krzyzewski guides the Blue Devils to their 23rd Sweet 16 under his watch, he can rely on 90 NCAA tournament victories, 12 Final Fours and five national titles for experience and credibility.
Altman is still looking for his first trip to the Elite Eight. A victory Thursday would be just another notch in the belt of Krzyzewski, but would represent so much more for Altman and his career.
“It would mean the world,” Oregon forward Dillon Brooks said. “I don’t think too many guys know that, but once it’s known, we’re going to do everything in our power to get Coach Altman as far as he can and build his resume and build his whole coaching staff’s resume as well.”
Altman’s sustained success has not gone unnoticed and has earned the respect of the college basketball community at large. Krzyzewski called him “obviously an outstanding coach”, a testament to his proven knack for building a program into something much bigger than he inherited.
As the number of teams still vying for college basketball’s top prize dwindles, the elite coaches separate themselves by staying alive. There are several terrific coaching battles taking place this week—Miami’s Jim Larrañaga against Villanova’s Jay Wright, Williams against Indiana’s Tom Crean, Boeheim against Gonzaga’s Mark Few—that deserve plenty of attention, as much as the players on the court will get.
And Krzyzewski versus Altman belongs right up there with any of them.
“It’s going to be a great coaching battle. Coach Altman has been looked down upon and not gotten his recognition for a long time, and this is a chance to show it,” Brooks said. “Coach Altman is an evil genius when he’s out there making the play-calls and switching up defenses. This is his time to shine.”
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