Oregon coach Dana Altman had never experienced a victory so deep into March, so the emotion poured out of him after Saturday's game.
In the center of the jubilant Oregon locker room, encircled by the players who had just taken him to the first Sweet 16 of his career, the Ducks coach encouraged his team to savor its accomplishment before focusing on Friday's matchup with Louisville.
"Fellas, enjoy it," he shouted. "There's going to be 16 teams playing out of 347, and you are one of those teams. You are one of those teams that are playing when only 16 play."
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Altman repeatedly insisted later that his joy was for his players and not himself, but surely he must feel some personal satisfaction too. By taking 12th-seeded Oregon to its first Sweet 16 since 2007, Altman validated the risk he took leaving Creighton three years ago and silenced any remaining skeptics unsure he was the right coach to lead the Ducks back to prominence.
Hired at the end of a meandering 39-day coaching search in spring 2010, Altman wasn't a familiar name to most Oregon fans. They had their sights set on a big-splash, high-profile hire after interim athletic director Pat Kilkenny made a run at the likes of Tom Izzo, Jamie Dixon and Mike Anderson, so Altman was initially viewed as a bit of a letdown.
Despite leading Creighton to three Missouri Valley titles, seven NCAA tournaments and five NITs in his 16-year tenure at the school, Altman was not well-known even among his future players at the time of his arrival. Oregon senior E.J. Singler admitted he had to pull up Altman's online bio just to learn a few basic details about his new coach.
"Google was my friend," Singler joked. "I didn't know who he was when he was picked. I did some research on him, I looked him up and I saw he was a great coach at Creighton and the schools before. I knew we were getting a really, really good coach."
It was a bit of a surprise when Altman made the jump to Oregon because many assumed he'd remain at Creighton until he retired.
A Nebraska native who coached almost exclusively in the Midwest throughout his career, Altman had passed on previous opportunities to leave his home state and rebuild a power-conference program. In April 2007, he famously accepted the Arkansas job and held his introductory press conference in Fayetteville only to renege on his decision and return to Creighton a day later.
Even though Altman declared after returning to Omaha, "This is where I will finish my coaching career," the fact that Creighton missed the next three NCAA tournaments gave him reason to reconsider. So did talk of Oregon's lavish budget and sparkling new facilities when Kilkenny and Nike CEO Phil Knight met with him.
"I was in my 50s, so if I was going to make a move, it might have been the time," Altman said. "Pat and Phil were just hard to tell no. And I just felt like maybe it was time for a change. Sixteen years at one place is enough. I think the people there were tired of me."
Before Altman could win over skeptical Oregon fans, he first had to retool his roster and get his players on board with his intense, sometimes rigid style. Newcomers sometimes struggled with that – most notably top Class of 2011 recruit Jabari Brown, who transferred after just a few games – but gradually Oregon's veterans have gotten used to Altman and set an example for the young players.
"We tell them, 'Look, this guy's not going to tell us anything that's not right,' senior guard Johnathan Loyd said. "He's a hard-nosed coach. It's his way or the highway. He doesn't want any arguing. You may not like your role, but that's your role. Go do it. He's willing to talk to you, but if he feels he's right, he's right. So listen."
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Despite the transfer of Brown and some ill-timed injuries, Altman has made incremental progress each of his three seasons.
He somehow won 21 games during his first season with a roster that consisted of as many walk-ons and spare parts as scholarship players. He won 24 games and made the NIT last season after adding transfers Devoe Joseph, Olu Ashualo Carlos Emory, Johnathan Loyd and Tony Woods to the mix.
Projected seventh in the Pac-12 before this season after losing three starters from last year, Altman rebuilt his roster on the fly. He added a strong freshman class of guards Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson and forward Ben Carter, then brought aboard impact transfer Arsalan Kazemi when he became available in September.
The way in which this season's team has bought into Altman's methods is evident not just from Oregon's 28 wins but also its attire. The Ducks often wear "Bend Your Knees" T-shirts during warmups, an homage to Altman's favorite expression and solution to all problems on the basketball floor.
"On a daily basis, I probably hear that about 30 times," Carter said. "It really is his go-to phrase. Shooting the ball? "Bend your knees." Playing defense? "Bend your knees." He knows we clown him a little bit for it, but I wouldn't have it any other way."
Altman's finger prints were on both of Oregon's two NCAA tournament victories in San Jose this past week.
He designed a strategy to bottle up Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart in the Round of 64, having his smaller quicker point guards get up into the 6-foot-4 freshman on the perimeter and sending a big man to double team when Smart posted up. Then on Saturday, he sped up the tempo and threw Saint Louis off its rhythm with a light full-court pressure that fell back into either zone or man-to-man.
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In the aftermath of the Saint Louis victory, Altman didn't bother to tell his players it was his first Sweet 16 as a head coach and he shut down all questions about what the milestone meant to him and his career. Instead he was more interested in reflecting on the fact that his players were going to get to experience the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time.
"For me I get an opportunity to do it a number of times," Altman said. " E.J. doesn't. That's who I feel great for. Tony is back. Carlos, we were sitting back there and said, man, I just don't know what to expect. I said just savor everything and enjoy it. And Arsalan came to Oregon so he'd have this opportunity. So it's great for me. I'm excited but, man, it's just great to get to see those guys in the locker room all fired up."
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