When he was on the recruiting trail this summer, Oregon basketball coach Dana Altman made sure to tell prospects about the Pac-12 Network. Projected to launch in 2012, the venture will enable viewers across the country to follow the Ducks and other conference teams from the comfort of their own living room.
"It's huge," Altman said of the deal. "We can tell the families of the kids we sign that they can watch all of their son's games, and it'll give us so much more exposure nationally. All of a sudden a lot of people are going to have the ability to watch Oregon basketball."
The Ducks think they'll provide a good reason to tune in.
One season after inheriting a program that went 24-39 the two years before his arrival, Altman appears to have Oregon headed back in the right direction. The Ducks will depart for an exhibition tour of Italy Monday high on momentum thanks to a roster mixed with seasoned veterans, highly touted freshmen and a pair of transfers who should make an immediate impact.
While talk of Pac-12 championships and deep NCAA tournament runs may be a bit premature, the positive vibes surrounding the program have given fans in Eugene a reason to be optimistic about Oregon basketball again.
"There's a definite buzz," senior guard Garrett Sim said. "Being able to come see the new players and how they mesh is going to create a lot of excitement from our fans. We'll take support any way we can get it."
The first steps of Oregon's return to prominence were taken a little more than a year ago when the school hired Altman to replace Ernie Kent. Altman, who had spent 16 years at Creighton, may not have been Oregon's first choice, but one year later, the move certainly appears to have been a wise one.
Despite having just eight scholarship players, Oregon went 21-18 last season, finished 7-11 in league play and won the CBI Classic by winning a best-of-three series against Creighton, of all schools.
"In December we went on a six-game losing streak," Altman said. "We were 7-9, and a lot of people predicted we may not win a conference game. Our guys banded together and found a way to win a couple. We got a little momentum going. Then we really played well in the conference tournament. I'm just pleased with the way they continued to compete and continued to improve."
Sim said Altman deserves most of the credit for the Ducks' improvement.
"He's all about winning," Sim said. "Every day, he brings his A-game. He's energized every day. When you play for a coach like that, it's fun to show up for practice and work your tail off to try to keep up with him.
"We bought into what he was telling us and started playing extremely hard. Teams don't like getting pressed, teams don't like playing against opponents that are taking charges and working their tail off. That's pretty much who we became."
Oregon loses three of its top four scorers from last year's team in Joevan Catron, Jay-R Strowbridge and Malcolm Armstead. Still, the Ducks have a legitimate reason to believe their record will improve in 2011-12.
Sim (8.2 points last season) and wing E.J. Singler (11.7 points, 5.6 rebounds) both return. And Altman signed a five-man recruiting class that includes Jabari Brown, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard who is the 19th-ranked player in the country by Rivals.com.
"He's working really hard," Altman said. "I really think he has a chance to be a special player. The transition to Division I basketball and learning our system is something he'll have to make. But he's mature, he's talented and he's got great parental support. I think he's going to be a solid player for us as a freshman. You hate to put too much pressure on any one player, but I'm excited about him."
The Ducks should also get an immediate contribution from three transfers who have all excelled at the Division I level.
Guard Devoe Joseph was averaging 11.3 points when he decided to leave Minnesota eight games into his junior season. Joseph won't be eligible until December.
Forward Olu Ashaolu averaged 14.2 points and 9.4 rebounds as a junior at Louisiana Tech last season. He entered the NBA draft but withdrew right at the deadline. He'll be available to play immediately at Oregon because he has already completed his undergraduate degree and graduate transfers are not required to sit out for a year after switching schools.
The most high-profile transfer, though, is Tony Woods, the former Wake Forest center who left school last fall after being arrested for a physical confrontation with his girlfriend. Woods initially committed to Louisville but then backed out of that pledge and talked with school such as Kentucky and Texas before picking Oregon.
"We talked with all of his former coaches," Altman said. "To a man, they said he absolutely deserved another chance. When we brought him in for a visit – and I know it's only a 48-hour period – but we thought he handled himself very well. It was an easy decision for me, but I wanted to make sure everyone on campus was comfortable with it. They seemed to be."
Altman said the 6-foot-11 Woods has shown promise thus far but that he needs to improve his "skill level." Whatever the case, he and Ashaolu and Jeremy Jacob, who is returning from a knee injury, should give the Ducks a formidable frontcourt rotation.
"Our athleticism is better, our depth is better and we've got a full complement of players," Altman said. "But it remains to be seen how the guys are going to blend together. We've got a lot of questions."
The Ducks are hopeful they'll be able to answer all of them.
"We have almost every piece we need," Sim said. "It's just a matter of whether we can come together and play as a unit and buy into what Coach Altman tells us to do. If we do that, we can be very successful."