Oregon stands out at Midwest Region

Originally Published: March 28, 2013
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Between them, Duke, Louisville and Michigan State have eight national championship trophies.

Nice ones, too -- well cared for, unbroken, with a designated spot of honor on campus.

Oregon has a piece of basketball hardware, too -- a trophy from the school's lone basketball title in 1939. The Ducks even brought it with them here to the Midwest Regional.

The hunk of junk more closely resembles something you'd find at a neighborhood yard sale. The little basketball man on top unscrews at the ankles thanks to a makeshift repair 74 years ago -- "I think they broke it after they won in '39,'' said Oregon assistant sports information director Mike Garabedian -- and the bottom is so unstable, the whole trophy wobbles.

[+] EnlargeOregon trophy
Photo courtesy Dana O'NeilOregon's national championship trophy from the first NCAA tournament, in 1939, has accompanied the Ducks on their run to the Sweet 16.

It might have been golden or copper at one point, but now it more just looks tarnished and beaten.

The Ducks have treated it with all the reverence its dilapidated stature deserves. On the team plane they tricked it out in sunglasses (though they did strap it in to its own seat) before landing, and they have carted it around in both a duffel bag and a plastic bag from the UO bookstore.

Oregon doesn't even have a home for it on campus. There's a replica that the NCAA provided in the trophy case, but for now, the original resides on a dusty office shelf. The last survivor from that 1939 team recently died, so there's a casual plan to get a team banner he had and partner it with the trophy in a new case.

And, really, it's all just so perfect.

Of course Oregon, in this Midwest Regional of all places, would have the George Costanza of NCAA title trophies.

The other three teams here -- Duke, Louisville and Michigan State -- rank among the best in terms of tradition and excellence. Oregon has cool uniforms.

The other three coaches here -- Mike Krzyzewski (in the Hall of Fame), Rick Pitino (could be in the Hall of Fame as soon as a week from Monday) and Tom Izzo (a future Hall of Fame lock) would make the carving of the next Mount Rushmore of coaches.

Dana Altman would be buying tickets to take his kids to view Rushmore.

"All three of those programs, because of their coaches, have great records, great traditions,'' Altman said. "We're trying to build a tradition. We're trying to build something that consistently competes year in, year out and that's a big challenge for us.''

Even with its deep Nike association, Oregon has never exactly been a go-to destination for basketball. Somehow the trendiness of Duck football hasn't translated to the hard courts, where success can be condensed easily into one page.

Oregon has made 11 NCAA tournament appearances, the gap between many stretching on like an abyss.

Ernie Kent was fired after 13 years, his run dotted by two Elite Eight runs and otherwise mediocrity. Before him, the days were even leaner in the Pacific Northwest, with three tourney berths between 1960 and 1995.

Altman, apparently last on a multiple-choice test of coaching options for former athletic director Pat Kilkenny, came from Creighton with a solid Missouri Valley résumé and six scholarship players to build from.

The Nebraska native wasn't exactly a sexy hire (even E.J. Singler had to Google his new coach's name to get his résumé), known more for his reneging on Arkansas than for his seven NCAA tournament runs at Creighton.

[+] EnlargeDana Altman
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsIn his third season at Oregon, Dana Altman has led the Ducks to 28 wins, a Pac-12 tournament title and a Sweet 16 berth.

But great coaches have to come from somewhere, even the ones Altman shared the dais with on Thursday.

Krzyzewski was 38-47 in his first three seasons at Duke; Tom Izzo went to the NIT twice before breaking through to the tournament with the Spartans. Pitino's slipper was a bit more golden, but he pulled himself up from the Boston University ranks first before leading the likes of Kentucky and now Louisville to the Final Four.

"He was like me back in '98,'' Michigan State's Tom Izzo said. "… It was my fourth year as a head coach, the first time I went [to the Sweet 16]. I really didn't even know where I was going. They said press conference. What did that mean?

"He'll do a great job. It's a little harder when you're in a region that has guys with lots of experience. But experience doesn't win games. It helps you win games. Players win games.''

And Oregon has won games this year, 28 of them in all. Four of the eight the Ducks didn't, their starting point guard, Dominic Artis, was out of the lineup with an injury.

Oregon also won the Pac-12 tournament.

And still got a 12-seed, a selection committee decision that managed to snub both the conference and the team at the same time.

The under-seeding generated plenty of outrage among the media and fans, but the Ducks let it roll like … well, yeah, like water off their backs. If the slight has been their inspiration, they aren't saying.

But the snubbing is equally perfect for the team with the ragtag trophy, the odd man out in basketball's version of the Sesame Street's "one of these things is not like the other" skit.

Of course the Ducks have been disrespected. Have you seen their trophy?

"Obviously, the other three teams here, very historic,'' Singler said. "You got Duke, you got Michigan State, you got Louisville. Teams that have all won national championships, all have been here in this place that we're at a lot. So Oregon is definitely not up to that part of just the history, but we're definitely excited we're a part of it right now. And being able to play against teams like this, this is where we want to be. And I feel like this is where we're supposed to be.''

They even have the hardware to prove it.

Well sort of.

Dana O'Neil | email

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