[Editor's note: If you missed the news, Dana Altman is staying at Oregon, and now it's time for him to take Oregon basketball to the next level.]
Boy, wasn't that NIT tournament fun? The Ducks scored lots of points, won a couple entertaining games, and played hard in a loss in Seattle. And gee golly, we alllllmost made it to Madison Square Garden! Well don't worry, because if we play hard next year, grind out a couple Pac-12 road wins, and make a competitive showing in the conference tournament, and we can get another shot at making it to New York. Because next year's Oregon Ducks team, as it stands right now, is not an NCAA tournament-caliber team. And Oregon won't be an NCAA-caliber team anytime soon if Dana Altman and staff can't improve the current state of high school recruiting, and subsequent player development.
Oregon head coach Dana Altman has proven himself to be adept at patching together a competitive roster. He's combed the JC and transfer ranks for guys like Devoe Joseph, Tyrone Nared, or Jay-R Strowbridge. Those players, along with Olu Ashaolu, Tony Woods, and Carlos Emory, have been able to come in and immediately contribute. Without Nared and Strowbridge, we don't win the 2010 CBI tourney. Without Joseph and the rest of the gang, we wouldn't have been in NCAA tourney discussions entering the Pac-12 tournament. And I have no doubt that Coach Altman will be able to find some bodies that can come in and keep the Ducks in games. But the leap from "scrappy team that can catch fire and steal a win" to "top-flight Pac-12 program that competes for a conference title every year" comes from recruiting talented high school kids, and molding them into elite basketball players. And Altman hasn't proven his ability to do that.
Considering the timing of Altman's hiring, and his stark contrast in style to Ernie Kent, the 2010 recruiting class was a tall order for Altman to try and salvage. He picked up one freshman commit in PG Jonathan Loyd, and Loyd has been wholly underwhelming through his first two seasons in Eugene. After showing promise as a freshman, he has regressed a bit as a sophomore, disappearing as a scorer while not performing well enough as a distributer to make up for the lack of points. And half of Altman's 2011 class is no longer on the team, with guards Bruce Barron and Jabari Brown leaving the team and intending to transfer. Guard Brett Kingma played sparingly as a freshman, and forward Austin Kuemper redshirted. The success of these two will be critical to Oregon's team success next season; Kingma could be in line to start at the 2 next year, and Kuemper will add much needed frontcourt depth behind Tony Woods. How effective they can be as players remains to be seen.
As the head coach of Creighton, Altman turned the Bluejays into a nationally recognized program. In a nine-year stretch between 1998 and 2007, Creighton made the NCAA tournament seven times. Their combined record in those seven seasons? 2-7, and zero appearances in the second weekend. What does this mean? It means Dana Altman was able to build a program good enough to win the Missouri Valley Conference, and nothing else. His recruiting classes in Omaha relied just as heavily on JC talent as his first two classes here. That's good enough to be at the top of a mid-major conference and have a cup of coffee in the Big Dance, but that won't be enough in the Pac-12. He hit his ceiling as a coach in Omaha, but in Eugene, a school that has the facilities and exposure necessary to take the next step, Altman has to grow along with the program.
The 2012 class currently includes ESPN150 guard Dominic Artis, along with forwards Dameyon Dotson and Ben Carter. Ideally, all three will be sign letters of intent with the Ducks. Even more ideally, all three will sign letters of intent, and then remain on the team for at least one season. 2012-13 will be a key year for the Dana Altman regime; if Loyd, Kingma, and Kuemper can show improvement, and the new class can gel and contribute, then maybe there is hope. But if there is any more early transferring, and Altman's recruits fail to live up to potential, then the murky start becomes clear: if Oregon's basketball program is going to be anything more than a mid-major scrapheap masquerading as a major conference contender, it will need a coach that's something more than Dana Altman.