SAN JOSE, Calif. — Dana Altman is fighting back a smile, and you can tell the coach is trying his best to be diplomatic.
The question is about Kenny Wooten’s dramatic recovery from an apparently painful shoulder injury, one that sent Wooten to the locker room late in the first half of Friday’s NCAA Tournament game against Wisconsin.
Wooten spent the closing minutes of the half on the bench with a towel pressed over his shoulder, grimacing dramatically in pain. With the score deadlocked and Oregon struggling to escape Wisconsin’s sweaty embrace, it seemed possible the Ducks would have to play the second half without their top shot blocker and most explosive athlete.
So, coach, were you concerned about Wooten’s health?
“I thought once you get the adrenaline flowing he’d be fine,” Altman said with a chuckle, and if you need the translation, he figured out pretty fast that Wooten's injury was less serious than it appeared.
This is something to know about Kenny Wooten: He has a flair for the dramatic. That’s true whether he’s nursing a sore shoulder, skying above the backboard for a dunk or sending a blocked shot into the 19th row.
Wooten did all of those things in Friday’s 72-54 upset of No. 5 seed Wisconsin. He might have been the one grimacing at halftime, but in the end, the Badgers were the ones feeling the pain.
Wisconsin didn’t have anyone who could hang with Wooten above the rim. He demoralized the Badgers with a second-half barrage of blocks and lobs, using the NCAA Tournament stage to introduce himself as one of college basketball’s rising stars.
“It’s everything I thought it would be and more,” Wooten said. “It’s an amazing feeling.”
After the game, Wisconsin star Ethan Happ was asked if the Ducks got in his head with their aerial exploits. He said no, of course, because he’s a proud and accomplished basketball player whose career just ended in a lopsided defeat.
But to anyone watching the game, it was clear that Wooten’s athleticism was the difference. In second half alone, Wooten flew in from nowhere to flush a Payton Pritchard miss, dunked a lob from Will Richardson, blocked a shot and ran the floor for a lob from Pritchard, drew a charge, and saluted the crowd after sending a Wisconsin shot attempt into orbit.
Not bad for a guy with a bum shoulder, huh?
“It really stems from him going above the rim to go get blocks,” forward Paul White said. “He was emphatic with those kind of plays tonight.”
Attempts to quantify basketball through advanced metrics have yet to produce a formula that can measure the impact of an alley-oop dunk or a swatted shot, but we all know those plays are worth more than two points either way.
So when the stat sheet shows Wooten with nine points, six rebounds and four blocks, understand that his impact went far beyond the numbers. There were a few points in the game when you looked up at the scoreboard, looked at the body language of the players on the court and realized the Badgers were in trouble.
Almost always, those moments came after a big play from Wooten.
“That man is a special talent,” Pritchard said. “I’ve never seen anybody really jump like him.”
He’s right. The Ducks have had some high-flyers in recent years, including Warriors forward Jordan Bell, who was watching from the front row Friday afternoon. But they haven’t had anyone with Wooten’s effortless elevation — the ability to keep going up while everyone else is on the way down.
Wooten may not be Oregon’s best NBA prospect. He may not be the Ducks’ best player, or their most consistent, or their most physical. But he does things few other players in college basketball can do, and that’s a great thing to have in March.
The Ducks got a little greedy at times, trying to force lobs to Wooten when they weren’t there. But once you’ve seen what he can do, it’s hard to blame a guard for tossing a pass in the vicinity of the rim and assuming Wooten will swoop in and dunk it.
“A lot of times it’s my fault, not throwing it high enough for him,” Pritchard said. “I gotta still trust him and just throw it up. He saves us so much, going and getting those balls.”
Right now Wooten’s talent shows up in fits and spurts. If he could be this player all the time, it’s scary to imagine what he and the Ducks might accomplish.
If you’re going to make a star turn, though, March is the time to do it. People remember what happens in this tournament, and with a few more games like this one, they’re going to remember Kenny Wooten.
“It’s just a surreal moment right now,” he said. “I’m trying to take it all in.”
Go ahead, soak it up. Your timing couldn't be better.