TUCSON, Ariz. - Dana Altman often recognizes some recruits that got away from him at McKale Center.
Stanley Johnson, Aaron Gordon, and Brandon Ashley are among the former Arizona players who turned down the Ducks. Sean Miller won a few other recruiting battles with Oregon in recent years.
“They have a bunch of guys that visited here,” Altman recalled this week as Oregon (10-6, 1-2) prepared to visit Arizona (13-4, 4-0) Thursday night at 6 p.m. “We wanted Ira Lee, Brandon Randolph, Brandon Williams. We tried to get a visit out of Chase Jeter. They have got real good players, we think, because we sure wanted a lot of them.”
Altman has beaten Miller for a few top recruits as well, including Tyler Dorsey and Bol Bol. The 7-foot-2 Bol became the top recruit Altman ever landed in a 30-year coaching career, but the freshman will never face Arizona because his UO career ended after nine games due to a broken foot that he will rehabilitate while remaining in school until he declares for the NBA Draft in the spring.
With Kenny Wooten not expected to be ready to return from a broken jaw to play against the Wildcats, Oregon will likely remain at eight scholarship players. A UO spokesman said Wednesday that Wooten status was “still to be determined” after he met with doctors.
The Ducks are 4-3 since Bol’s injury, including a 2-2 mark after Wooten joined him on the sideline.
“They’ve really been hit as hard as a team can get hit with injuries, so it is hard to judge them, but what I will say is that Dana Altman is one of college basketball’s great coaches,” Miller said. “He has his team playing as hard as any team in our conference.”
The two coaches who have combined to win or share each of the last five Pac-12 titles have been praising each other for more than a decade dating back to when they faced off in nonleague games while Altman was at Creighton and Miller coached Xavier.
“They have got really good athletes,” Altman said of Arizona. “Not the size they have had in previous seasons, but every bit as athletic.”
Randolph may be the most improved player in the conference while leading the Wildcats with 16.3 points per game a sophomore while Jeter, a 6-10 junior, averages 13.4 points and 7.4 rebounds in his first season after transferring from Duke. Starting forward Emmanuel Akot quit the team this week and will likely be replaced by 6-9 senior transfer Ryan Luther in the lineup.
Arizona sits alone in first place in the Pac-12 while the Ducks are trying to stay in the conference race after dropping their first two conference games at home. Oregon is up to No. 77 in the Net rankings following a 81-60 win over USC and its two regular-season games against Arizona could turn out to be the best remaining opportunities for resume-building wins.
“I haven’t talked about the postseason,” Altman said. “We have to go game-to-game. With this young of a team, I don’t think right now it is worth talking about. If we don’t start playing better and doing the things necessary, it’s not going to matter. We have to go to Arizona and swing away and do the best we can. If we do that, we will have our shot and if we don’t do those things, we won’t have our shot.”
Oregon had arguably its most efficient offensive performance of the season against the Trojans while shooting 55.8 percent from the field, including 13-of-24 on three-pointers. The Ducks had 16 assists on 29 field goals while committing 13 turnovers.
“Our ball movement did get a lot better, but Arizona creates more problems because defensively their man-to-man pressure is different which will really put a premium on us handling the ball and making plays,” Altman said. “The first 13 minutes of the second half against USC we didn’t have a turnover and that enabled us to build a pretty good lead. That will be important against Arizona. … Their pressure can cause turnovers so we will have to handle the ball and do a good job there.”
Both teams are smaller than they have been in recent seasons with Oregon forced to alter its style without Wooten and Bol. Four of the six Ducks who played at least 23 minutes against the Trojans were guards.
“Their effort allows them to pressure you for 40 minutes, create a ton of turnovers and traps and deflections and then on the offensive end they do an outstanding job of getting second shots,” Miller said. “They don’t do it with players at 6-10 and 250, they do it with guards and a couple of bigs who relentlessly crash the offensive glass. The more second-shot opportunities that Oregon gets and the more turnovers they create with their defense, the better team they are. The two keys for us are to make them miss and when they do, we have to do as good of a job as we can blocking out and getting those rebounds that have sometimes haunted us all season.”
Altman sees a similar scenario playing out for the Ducks.
“We have to be committed, focused, and we have to rebound,” he said. “That is one of the big keys, we have to rebound. We had a big minus in rebounding during our first two losses and a big plus against USC, so that is a big factor.”
Oregon’s first conference road game will be nationally televised on ESPN in front of a sellout crowd of more than 14,000 in what Altman said “sets the standard in the Pac-12 for atmosphere.” The Ducks are 2-3 away from home this season including a 1-2 mark in true road games.
“It is a big crowd out there, but we are not going to do anything special,” said UO freshman forward Louis King, who is averaging 19.3 points and 9.3 rebounds in conference games. “We are just going there to get the win. … We need wins. We lost our first two Pac-12 games and we are trying to win the whole Pac-12.”