Following the release of the March Madness pool, I had an opportunity to speak with No. 3 Oregon head coach Dana Altman on Selection Sunday. You wouldn’t know it from asking him, but Altman is having one of his most successful seasons (29-5) in a coaching career that started in 1989 at Marshall.
Over his impressive time in Eugene, the Duck lead man has won the Pac-12 Coach of the Year honor three of the past five years. 2016-17 easily could have been his fourth in five seasons, but Arizona’s Sean Miller somehow snuck away with the award, despite finishing second to Oregon in the Pac-12 regular season.
Heading into the 2017 NCAA Tournament, the coach may be facing his greatest test. Losing a senior with the value and leadership of Chris Boucher is not a speed bump, it’s a road block. Yet, if anyone can prepare his team for something like this, it’s Altman.
Amid countless interview and media requests alike, Altman politely finds time for everyone. He may not even know who he is speaking with at times, but he is a man of great character, consistency and conviction. Oregon’s head coach practices what he preaches to his players.
What does the loss of Chris Boucher, the player and person, mean to this team?
I feel terrible for Chris. He’s been such a big part of our program the last two years. He’s a unique player. He leads the conference in blocked shots. He does a phenomenal job of protecting the rim. I just don’t know what to say. It was a big blow. He’s probably our most popular player. He’s so friendly. He’s the first one to pick up the guys after I bark at them. He’s been a pleasure to coach. I felt so bad for him yesterday. When he got the news, he was pretty shook up. He felt like he let the team down. He’s more worried about his teammates than himself. We’re going to help him through this recovery. It’s going to take awhile, but our team just has to move forward. It is a blow because he is such a unique player. His ability to shoot the three, mixed in with his shot-blocking ability. He’s able to run the floor really well. Guys just throw it up to the rim and have him go get it. Without that athleticism, it’s going to make it a little tougher on us no doubt.
How special is Chris to be where he is today after all he has been through in his life?
Absolutely. You take into account that so many people are fortunate enough to be born into financial situations that are pretty good. And there’s those young men that aren't that fortunate. For him to overcome, to really not start playing basketball until he was out of high school. Then he went the junior college route. It is a story of patience and staying after it. Not giving in to it. To come here and be the most popular player we’ve had in a long time, the people love him. Big ol’ smile all the time. Just his personality. His background and his story, to go to college and he’s going to be able to graduate from here. His future is bright. This injury is a little setback for him, but he’s still going to play basketball for awhile with his unique abilities and his competitiveness. This is just a little setback, but he’ll bounce back. Next year he’ll be playing somewhere.
Does it create extra motivation for the team like with Louisville after Kevin Ware’s horrific injury a few years ago in the Elite Eight or even the Michigan plane incident this past week?
Well, everybody just has to pick it up a little bit. We don’t have anybody to replace Chris or what he did for our team. Everyone is going to have to do a little bit more and they’re all capable of that. I agree with you. We played Louisville the game before that young man got hurt and he played really against us in the Sweet 16 game. Then he got hurt in the final eight game. You’re right, it brought that team together and they went on to win the national title. You know our team responded okay yesterday. Like I said, they were subdued all day. They were kind of down. We got down to Arizona but battled back. The guys were a little bit better today. I think by Friday, we’ll be ready to play.
How good was the Pac-12 this season?
It was really good. UCLA’s ability to score is off the charts. And when Arizona got (Allonzo) Trier back, he just made a tremendous difference for them. He’s a go-to guy and he’s someone who can really make plays for them. We got the game close last night and he hit four free throws to hold us off. He did a great job. I do believe right now that Arizona is playing the best of the three (Pac-12 teams). UCLA, with their offensive ability if they get it rolling, they’re a real handful. I like to think we’re going to bounce back and be a handful also down the stretch.
And finally, thus far what do you know about your upcoming opponent the Iona Gaels?
Unfortunately, I have not seen them play. I know our assistants are scurrying right now to try and find as much information as we can on them and get as much film on them as we can. I know they get up and down. They take a lot of threes. Look at their stats, you see they average 80 points a game. Their three percentage, they take a lot of them and they make a lot of them. They shoot a good percentage. It will put our transition defense to test without that rim protector Chris Boucher. You know Arizona scored more points in the paint last night than we have given up in a long time? We average seven blocks a game and only got three last night. Missing that guy, we’re going to have to change some things up with our defense. Not pressure as much on the outside. We have a lot of work to do before now and Friday, and that’s to get ready for Iona.
No. 3 Oregon (29-5) will meet No. 14 Iona (22-12) in the Midwest region of the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Tip is set for 11:00 a.m. PT on Friday morning from the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Calif. Nothing beyond this game is promised to anyone. The Ducks have their work cut out for them.