The Oregon Ducks have played the second half of this college basketball season without Dylan Ennis, the transfer from Villanova who was supposed to be a vital cog in the Eugene Machine.
The Miami Hurricanes ventured to South Bend, Indiana, on Wednesday night to play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish without third-leading scorer Ja’Quan Newton.
Oregon lost its two most recent road games, playing horribly in a blowout at California and a narrow defeat at lowly Stanford.
Miami’s most recent road game was a no-show. The Hurricanes served up a “no mas” response to North Carolina’s pressure, falling behind 86-48 midway through the second half on a humiliating afternoon against The U’s main competitor for first place in the ACC.
The Ducks and the Canes both had reasons to falter Wednesday night, thrust into high-pressure situations in two well-known college basketball venues. Oregon had to survive Pauley Pavilion — not a packed house, but still a place where the history of college hoops is deeply felt. Miami had to handle the Joyce Center, the scene of Digger Phelps’s greatest triumphs in the 1970s and 1980s and the home of the team which came one shot from knocking off unbeaten Kentucky in last year’s Elite Eight.
Oregon and Miami, both chasing conference championships, had every reason to not be at their best. Roster limitations, road environments, late-season wear and tear, recent stumbles — they all could have played a role in preventing the Ducks or Canes from flourishing on Wednesday. Early-March games at the end of a conference season might not determine what happens in the NCAA tournament, but in a sport where regular season conference championships are regrettably underappreciated, these games matter… even if the masses are just waiting for basketball games in which a bracket is involved.
Oregon and Miami — albeit in different ways — could not have responded more impressively to the similar situations they faced.
Oregon slogged through a rough first half but stayed in the conversation against UCLA. The Ducks survived and stayed close long enough to unfurl their best basketball in a furious finishing kick. Oregon hammered UCLA on the glass and was quicker to 50-50 balls in the final minutes. The Ducks overcame the Bruins to clinch a share of the Pac-12 title. If they can beat USC this weekend, they’ll earn an outright title even if Utah beats Colorado.
Miami didn’t need to worry about a first-half struggle. Eight minutes into the proceedings, the Canes jumped on Notre Dame, 21-3, in a score that might have elicited memories of Jimmy Johnson and Gerry Faust from the mid-1980s on the gridiron. Miami relentlessly stayed with Notre Dame’s wing shooters, preventing the Irish from ever getting comfortable on offense. The Hurricanes smothered their opponent, never allowing the home crowd in South Bend to get excited. Miami is a veteran team, and the way The U took care of its business in the Joyce Center represented the portrait of a veteran team, fully in control of its powers and knowing exactly how to use them.
Oregon stands atop the Pac-12. Miami, with either a win over Virginia Tech or a North Carolina loss to Duke, will share the ACC crown. The Canes could very easily win the ACC outright if UNC falls in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Does the nation realize just how much Dana Altman and Jim Larranaga have squeezed from their teams this season… and have produced during their tenures in opposite corners of the country?
Oregon, at the start of the 21st century, owned just five prior NCAA tournament appearances. Ernie Kent delivered five NCAA trips over the next decade before his departure in 2010. Yet, as successful as Kent was in Eugene, Altman has quickly raised the bar for Oregon basketball on a number of levels.
First things first — literally. Altman has become the first Oregon men’s basketball coach to lead the Ducks to NCAA tournament appearances in three straight seasons. That will become four on Selection Sunday. Altman has won NCAA tournament games in three straight seasons. Given that Oregon will be a 2 or 3 seed, the Ducks are likely to stretch that streak to four as well. No previous UO coach won NCAA tournament games in consecutive seasons, let alone three or four.
Altman has done all this in the face of considerable roster churn, not just this season but in previous years. Some of this upheaval was the product of appalling conduct by players. Nevertheless, Altman has had to readjust on the fly for the Ducks, more times than any coach would like to.
Oregon has still taken flight. Altman is impervious to a down year. He’s gained a top-two seed in each of the past two Pac-12 Tournaments.
Then move to the opposite corner of the United States. Jim Larranaga, occupying the same conference as Duke and North Carolina — coaching in a backyard shared by Coach K, Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, and Tony Bennett — is one win and one UNC loss away from being the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament for the second time in four seasons. Larranaga is headed for a second No. 2 (or possibly higher) NCAA tournament seed in four seasons. Beating Virginia Tech and winning in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals might be good enough to shore up a 2 seed in the Dance. Beating Virginia Tech and making the ACC final will lock up a 2. Beating the Hokies and winning the ACC Tournament could put Miami on the 1 line come Selection Sunday.
Where were Oregon and Miami four years ago in college hoops? Nowhere — that’s the only accurate answer.
Dana Altman and Jim Larranaga aren’t merely winning at a high level; they’re doing so at programs with relatively barren basketball histories.
Yes, Oregon has Nike and Miami is situated in a talent-rich portion of the country, but it’s not as though either school has an established basketball brand. Altman and Larranaga are doing things their predecessors never did or could. They might not receive maximum exposure in the 24-7 news cycle, but their accomplishments deserve superstar-level admiration.