INDIANAPOLIS – Contrary to popular belief, Oregon does have some basketball pedigree.
The Ducks dusted it off and brought it here to the Midwest Regional as proof.
Mike Garabedian of the Ducks sports information staff was toting the tarnished talisman of glory days past on Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium. It was the dull bronze trophy from the very first NCAA tournament championship in 1939 – won by the Tall Firs of Oregon.
The basketball figure at the top is broken at the ankles – a casualty dating back to when the trophy was dropped about two days after it was won. You can see the super glue they've used to try and cement the little set shooter back into his high tops, but it doesn't hold too well.
Eventually the relic will be stowed in a place of honor in Matthew Knight Arena, Oregon's swank basketball gym. A nice trophy case is being planned. But for now, it is road-tripping with the Ducks – to San Jose last week, Indy this week – despite the danger of it falling apart at any moment.
"It's seen better days," Garabedian said. "But it's still pretty iconic."
Problem is, the other three teams bring living icons to Indy, not pre-World War II baubles from a bygone era.
Duke, with its four national titles and 15 Final Fours, brings Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski to town. Louisville, with its two titles and nine Final Fours, brings Hall of Fame nominee Rick Pitino. Michigan State, with its two titles and eight Final Fours, brings eventual Hall of Famer Tom Izzo.
And then there are the odd Ducks.
Since that first title, Oregon has won a total of 11 NCAA tourney games. It has not returned to the Final Four. (And, truth be told, there was no actual Final Four back in '39 – there was a semifinal in Philadelphia, a semifinal in San Francisco and a title game in Evanston, Ill., where the Ducks beat Ohio State 46-33.) There have been two other regional final appearances, but no further. Prior to this year, Oregon had not won an NCAA game since 2007.
Clearly, this is no Duck Dynasty.
And coach Dana Altman? He's had a very nice career: 606 victories, 483 of them at Division I schools; nine NCAA tourney appearances at three different places (Kansas State, Creighton and Oregon). In NCAA play he has scored a couple of upsets over a couple of big names: beating Denny Crum and Louisville as a No. 10 seed in 1999, and beating Billy Donovan and Florida as a No. 12 seed in 2002.
But when the most valuable postseason hardware you own is from winning the College Basketball Insider tournament in 2011, there is a gap between you and the other three coaches here.
"There's one name that obviously doesn't belong with the other three," Altman said earlier this week. "Their résumés put mine to shame."
Their personalities tend to do the same. The other three coaches bring an abundance of charisma and wit to the sidelines and the interview room. They're true alpha males, comfortable in the spotlight.
Altman is just kind of there – never commanding attention on the sideline and rarely winning the news conference.
Which is OK, because he's winning. At a school that sells a lot of sizzle – the uniforms, the Nike connection, the palatial facilities – Altman is the low-key substance at the core.
"He's selfless, very understated," said athletic director Rob Mullens. "But the quality of his work is very high. His teams always play hard and execute well.
"He's a team guy, a department guy. He has a tremendous work ethic and a belief in a system, but he can take his system and adjust it to the parts. Whatever you see on Oct. 15 gets refined every single day until March. We are so much better now than we were at the start of the season."
The Ducks need to be Friday, taking on a Louisville team that has resembled a runaway freight train for the past six weeks. But none of them seem awed by this matchup, including the coach.
What the 54-year-old Altman lacks in pedigree and personality, he can make up here in opportunity. If he can somehow beat Pitino – who is merely 10-0 in Sweet 16 games – and then somehow take down Izzo or Krzyzewski Sunday, his standing in the coaching fraternity will change in a single weekend.
Fact is, Altman could have coached at the game's highest level sooner than 2010. He turned down plenty of jobs during his 16 years at Creighton, where he had 11 straight 20-win seasons. That included a one-day stint as the coach at Arkansas in 2007.
One look at Altman awkwardly calling the Hogs at his introductory news conference said this was a bad fit, and the Nebraska native realized it and reversed course in 24 hours. He stayed three more years at Creighton before making the jump to Oregon, when his four children were grown and out of the house.
"It really was tough to leave a great situation," Altman said. "But I just felt like if I was going to make a change, I was in my 50s, it was time to make a change."
Not much was expected of this, his third Oregon team. But the Ducks roared to an 18-2 start, struggled through the next 11 games at 5-6, then regrouped and caught fire. They won the Pac-12 tournament and bring a five-game winning streak here.
Louisville's players showed Oregon the proper respect in interviews here Thursday, sounding like they've watched plenty of film and absorbed the scouting report. But one thing about the Ducks caught them off-guard.
Someone asked point guard Peyton Siva, a basketball junkie, if he knew they had won a national title.
"Oregon?" he replied.
Yes, he was told. The first one.
"Oh," he said. "Well, I wasn't around then."
If Siva needed further proof that Oregon has won something in its otherwise modest history, the 1939 NCAA tournament trophy was making the rounds at the arena. Just don't touch the little set shooter on top.
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