When Dana Altman is asked to compare teams from his four decades of coaching, he tends to skip the specifics.
“Every year is different” is a common refrain from the Oregon men's basketball coach.
This year has definitely been different, as Altman acknowledged after Oregon finished off four wins in four nights by defeating Washington 68-48 to win the Pac-12 Tournament on Saturday night In Las Vegas and clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament. After starting the season 15-12, which basically eliminated its at-large hopes for the NCAA field, Oregon (23-12) has won eight straight as it heads into a first-round matchup against Wisconsin (23-10) at 1:30 p.m. Friday in San Jose, Calif.
“In the 39 years I've been lucky enough to do this, I've never seen a team make as drastic of a change in a three- or four-week period,” Altman said. “They really grew up quick and really believed in each other.”
Oregon was on the verge of finishing a second straight disappointing season in the NIT before securing a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in seven years.
“I was thinking about how this team is completely different now and I can’t remember what our mentality was back then, so that is a good sign,” UO senior Paul White said. “That has been left in the past. We shed that skin off us and it is a new kind of team. We enjoy playing tough defense. That’s big for us.”
Oregon blew a 19-point lead while allowing 62 points in the second half during its last loss, 93-80 at UCLA on Feb. 23. The Ducks were allowing 65.5 points per game at that point in the season.
Oregon is allowing 54.3 points during its current winning streak while holding seven of eight teams to 61 points or less. Fifteen of Oregon’s first 27 opponents exceeded 61 points.
“The mentality changed,” Oregon senior guard Ehab Amin said. “I think our guards started taking pride in keeping the ball from them and being more active with our hands. That is the first line of defense and the second line stepped up big time with Kenny (Wooten) and Francis (Okoro).
"Our rotations are more crisp now. If somebody gets beat, someone else is there to take a charge. Our communication is way better, not just one or two guys but four or five guys talking. Our defense is on another level now and it shows in all the numbers and categories and definitely in the winning column as well.”
Amin arrived at Oregon as a graduate transfer with a reputation for defense after leading the nation with 124 steals two years ago at Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Altman felt guard Payton Pritchard deserved consideration for the Pac-12 all-defensive team after ranking second in the conference with 1.8 steals per game.
“The guards have taken on the approach to be all about ball pressure and picking guys up and that makes things tough,” Pritchard said. “That has caused problems during the last eight games and allowed our bigs to clean up.”
Oregon set the Pac-12 Tournament record with 23 blocks in four games, including 10 from Wooten while Okoro tied the tournament single-game record with six blocks in a quarterfinal win over Utah.
Freshman Bol Bol was blocking 2.7 shots per game — which would rank seventh in the nation — before he was lost for the season after nine games due to a foot injury. Oregon’s remaining nine scholarship players include four freshmen and Amin as a transfer.
“A lot of the guys are new so our matchup (zone) is a little different, we bump different and take cutters differently and even change it up during the game,” Altman said. “That where the communication and watching film through so many games, you could tell guys were not talking because we had two guys going to make the same play and leaving somebody wide open and that really made for us giving up some uncontested shots both inside and out.
"Uncontested shots were killing us. Our percentage on contested shots is very good because of our length and ability to block shots at the rim, we can really run people off the (3-point) line when shots are contested and we are matched up properly. On contested shots people are shooting about 17 percent on the year.”