Duke-Oregon — the last of four Sweet 16 games on Thursday night — is not the best game in the upcoming regional semifinal round. That’s Indiana-North Carolina.
However, the duel between the Blue Devils and the Ducks does happen to be the best coaching collision you’ll see on either Thursday or Friday.
Sorry, Tom Crean and Roy Williams.
Almost, Jim Larranaga and Jay Wright in the Miami-Villanova clash.
It might well be true that Dana Altman has never reached the Elite Eight, and that the other two coaching matchups — both between Final Four coaches — are therefore superior to Devils-Ducks. However, if examined through the lens of the present tense, Altman’s encounter with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski really does stand out as the best chess match on the board in the Sweet 16. It’s the biggest reason this game stands above every other regional semifinal with the exception of Indiana-Carolina.
If you think Crean-Williams is the best pairing of two coaches in any Sweet 16, you would have to make the argument by citing Crean’s credentials.
Mike Krzyzewski trumps Roy Williams and every other active coach. Tom Izzo is the only active coach who really deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Coach K, and even then, Izzo has to settle for second place. If you’re going to tout any other Sweet 16 coaching matchup, you have to argue that the other coaches are better than Oregon’s Dana Altman.
With Tom Crean, there’s a case… but it’s a weak one.
Crean has made a Final Four, unlike Altman. He’s guided a previous Indiana team to a No. 1 seed (2013). He’s done a superb job of building back the Hoosiers after their 2015-2016 season appeared to be in a position of pronounced peril in early December. Crean’s career certainly looks a lot better after knocking John Calipari out of the Big Dance this past Saturday, and Altman doesn’t yet have a pelt that large.
Dana Altman lacks a glowing resume — it’s more a relentlessly solid one. Altman spent 16 seasons at Creighton, and in that time with the Bluejays of the Missouri Valley Conference (before their migration to the Big East), he never got out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. It’s easy — and not entirely unreasonable — to wonder why Altman couldn’t win more than one NCAA game in at least one or two seasons. Creighton was a pest for higher seeds in the round of 64; why couldn’t it ever break through in the round of 32?
Maybe Altman doesn’t quite measure up to Crean, or also to Jay Wright’s parade of very high seeds at Villanova over the past eight seasons (a No. 1 seed, multiple No. 2 seeds, plus a 3 in 2009 when the Wildcats went to the Final Four). That’s the argument against Altman; it’s not bereft of truth.
However, much like Miami coach Jim Larranaga, Altman spent a large chunk of his career at a smaller school. Such a long tenure at a mid-major (Larranaga spent 14 seasons at George Mason) sacrificed Final Four and Elite Eight statistics.
If half of Altman’s career at Creighton — or Larranaga’s stay at GMU — had instead been devoted to a high-major program, the historical record might be very different. Coach A — by reaching one Final Four and multiple Sweet 16s with a high major — isn’t necessarily superior to Coach B, who sticks it out with a mid-major and then takes a non-traditional basketball school to the Sweet 16.
This is why one can very firmly argue that Dana Altman is a better coach than Tom Crean. Success is an easy word to toss around; when it is cited and used in the context of a specific program, its culture, and overall expectations, it takes on a lot more meaning.
Let’s be clear, then: Two Sweet 16s at Oregon (Altman) represent far more of an accomplishment than the three Sweet 16s Crean has reached at Indiana. Crean has his Final Four with Marquette back in 2003, but if that single season makes Crean a better coach than Altman in the present moment, we arrive at a conflict between “career resume” and present-tense chops in terms of evaluating a coach in full.
To be sure, it’s okay to cite a resume, because achievements reflect coaching performance to a certain degree. However, many others will cite the present moment (either the current season or the past few seasons) as the best indicator of where a coach stands.
On this last point, Altman stands alone — even above Coach K.
The Oregon Ducks had never made NCAA tournament appearances in four straight seasons… until Dana Altman came along.
The Ducks had never won NCAA tournament games in four straight seasons… until Altman arrived.
Oregon basketball had never registered a No. 1 seed… until Dana Altman put all the pieces together this season, a Coach of the Year-level season Krzyzewski could not match.
Altman’s body of work over the past four months is enhanced when one realizes that he spent most of this season without Dylan Ennis, a high-impact transfer whose injury cut short his campaign. Altman’s work is so good, in fact, that this upcoming tussle with Duke has become a clear instance of role reversal.
The last time Duke made the Final Four as anything other than a No. 1 seed? 1994, in the Southeast Regional. The Blue Devils beat top-seeded Purdue to keep Gene Keady out of the Final Four. Ever since, the only time Coach K has reached the Final Four has been as a 1 seed.
This Thursday, though, Duke occupies the second-tier seeding spot, and Oregon has the “” next to its spot on the bracket in the West Regional. The Ducks were seeded 7 to 12 the past three years, and they tried their best in the round of 32 to create bracket havoc. Duke has never made the Final Four with anything lower than a 3 seed (1990), and that 3 seed marked the only one of Coach K’s 12 Final Fours in which Duke was not a 1 or a 2. The Blue Devils will plainly have to try to make new history here.
Oregon — carrying the flag for an otherwise-destroyed Pac-12 — wants to take ownership of a tournament as a 1 seed the way Duke and Krzyzewski have done so many times. Yet, the Ducks have absolutely no experience in that regard, while Duke is playing with house money.
Role reversal is real in Anaheim. It’s role reversal created by Dana Altman’s excellence. Indiana-Carolina and Miami-Nova have their places in this conversation, but if you want the very best of college basketball coaching in the Sweet 16, Duke-Oregon is your game.