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Investigations, shady connections show disconnect between Dana Altman and Oregon roster

Oregon head coach Dana Altman directs his team during the first half of a third-round game against the Wisconsin of the NCAA college basketball tournament Saturday, March 22, 2014, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
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Oregon head coach Dana Altman directs his team during the first half of a third-round game against the Wisconsin of the NCAA college basketball tournament Saturday, March 22, 2014, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

Dana Altman has a reputation as the straightest of arrows, a family man whose personal conduct is said to be above reproach.

But it is increasingly difficult to square that pristine reputation with the University of Oregon basketball coach’s problematic roster. Or what’s left of it.

He’s down to 10 scholarship players after three were dismissed from the team last week, in the wake of an investigation into an alleged sexual assault of an Oregon coed (the investigation yielded no charges). Some of the remaining names on the roster are noteworthy as well, for the company they’ve kept. This has been a messy run for a reputedly clean man.

There have been four players come and go who had three different allegations of violence against women, including one player who pled guilty to misdemeanor assault of his girlfriend. And there are two incoming recruits with ties to Brandon Bender, who was involved in multiple NCAA violations committed by Central Florida a few years ago, which landed the Knights on probation and earned them a one-year postseason ban.

It’s strange company for Altman to keep. At least if you buy what people have said about him throughout his career.

This is what Oregon interim athletic director Lorraine Davis said when Altman was hired in 2010: "In addition to the hiring of a basketball coach with strong ethics and solid personal values, there were three criteria that were very important to me and this university during the search. First, we wanted someone who recruited students of high quality and character as individuals, academically as well as athletically. Secondly, we sought someone who ran a clean program with integrity. And third, we went after a coach who had experience with building and maintaining winning programs with the reputation as a great coach. We have that in Dana Altman. It’s a great day for Oregon athletics."

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Dana Altman yells at his team during the NCAA tournament. (USA Today)

Some good days have followed, most notably winning the Pac-12 tournament and making the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 in 2013. But there have been enough dark days recently to obscure those accomplishments.

It seems fair to wonder whether the Oregon culture has bent Altman’s ramrod-straight rep. This is the school that has become Phil Knight’s boutique athletic shop, where excess is the trademark and winning is expected. This is the school where Chip Kelly buddied up to Will Lyles, then left ahead of the NCAA posse for the NFL. This is the school where the 2007 regional finalist basketball team had a Detroit pipeline that included a guard named Tajuan Porter, who said he “didn’t even know Oregon was a state” but wound up there anyway.

You take a step up from Creighton to Oregon and the stakes change quite a bit. Maybe the coach has to change, too.

Altman’s most prominent problem erupted earlier this month, when Dominic Artis, Damyean Dotson and Brandon Austin were booted from the team after being investigated by the Eugene Police Department for an alleged rape. The three were not charged, but the school moved to dismiss them after tawdry details of their encounter with a female student became public. In on-court terms, their departure is a huge blow to the program.

Austin was sitting out the season as a transfer from Providence, where he was not permitted to play as a freshman for the Friars after alleged involvement in a sexual assault there. The Providence Journal reported last week that a school disciplinary board voted in November 2013 to bar Austin from campus until spring 2015, but that decision was overruled by a university vice president in December.

The ruling allowed Austin to stay in school, the Journal reported, and to practice with the team. But he could not play in games for Providence so he decided to transfer. He wound up at Oregon in January.

Oregon officials have said they did not know why Austin was suspended at Providence, and Altman recently said the player was given a character reference by Providence coach Ed Cooley. But there is no conceivable world in which a recruiting coup like Austin – he was the No. 45 prospect in the Class of 2013, according to Rivals.com – is suspended for the year at Providence because of a minor occurrence. Oregon’s lack of curiosity in finding out the facts of that situation is striking.

The Eugene rape investigation was not the first off-court issue for Artis or Dotson, either, though both incidents pale in comparison. Artis and former teammate Ben Carter were suspended the first nine games of the 2013-14 season by the NCAA for selling Oregon-issued basketball shoes on eBay. (Carter has since transferred to UNLV.) Dotson was suspended for the Feb. 23 game against Washington State after being cited by Eugene police for trying to enter a bar with a fake ID.

Before those three there was Tony Woods, a center who transferred to Oregon in 2011 from Wake Forest. Woods was suspended at Wake after pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault of his girlfriend; the two had an argument in front of their infant son and Woods admitted pushing Courtney Barbour, who was subsequently treated for a fractured spine. Although several people – including Barbour – said the altercation was blown out of proportion and Woods was unfairly tarnished, a number of schools backed away from taking him after he left Wake Forest.

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Brandon Austin. (Photo credit: Rivals)

Oregon did not. Woods played two moderately impactful seasons for the Ducks from 2011-13 without reported incident. He played professionally this past season in Greece.

As for names on the current roster, freshman Ray Kasongo and junior Michael Chandler stand out. Both have ties to Bender, identified by the NCAA as a runner in its investigation of UCF that led to sanctions of the Knights in 2012.

Chandler, a big man from Indianapolis, was involved in the UCF investigation. The NCAA found that Bender and an associate, Ken Caldwell, whose LinkedIn profile said he worked for agent Andy Miller, assisted UCF in its recruitment of Chandler. He committed to the Knights but did not enroll there, sitting out the 2011-12 year for academic reasons. He spent the previous two years at Northwest Florida Junior College before committing to Oregon. It was his fourth Division I commitment, after previously pledging to Louisville, Xavier and UCF.

Chandler committed to Oregon on Oct. 29, 2013, four days after Kasongo. The 6-foot-9 freshman from Canada has been associated with Bender for quite some time, dating to at least 2011-12 when Kasongo showed up at East Ridge High School in rural Eastern Kentucky. After spending a season there Kasongo transferred to Pikeville High School for one year, and spent this past season at Phase 1 Academy in Arizona. In January 2013, Kasongo told Zagsblog.com that Bender is "my mentor."

Oregon’s comfort level in dealing with Bender is unclear – multiple attempts to reach athletic director Rob Mullens for comment were unsuccessful. Instead, assistant athletic director Craig Pintens referred Yahoo Sports to a May 9 statement from the university regarding the investigation of the alleged sexual assault, and a press conference Altman held earlier this month.

Yahoo Sports wasn't given the opportunity to ask questions about Chandler and Kasongo. Regardless, the fact that the Ducks have at least two players with ties to a guy with a recent file in the NCAA Enforcement office is not a good look.

Then again, neither is much of anything compared to what else has happened on Dana Altman’s watch recently. The school is standing behind him after the upheaval earlier this month, but the disconnect between Altman’s reputation and his roster is surprising and unsettling.

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