by Rob Moseley
For either Kentucky or Connecticut, the 2013-14 basketball season will end tonight in glorious fashion. For the other, it will come to a jarring, soul-crushing end, regardless of the run the loser made to tonight's NCAA Tournament final.
Such is life for a team that doesn't win its final game. After surrendering a 12-point halftime lead to Wisconsin in a third-round NCAA Tournament game on March 22, the Oregon men's basketball team can attest to that harsh reality.
The recently completed UO season, the fourth under head coach Dana Altman, featured a top-10 ranking after a 13-0 start, an eight-game win streak late in the year to overcome a midseason swoon and get the Ducks into the Big Dance, and a win over BYU in the second round. But that didn't make the bitter pill of losing to the Badgers any easier to swallow.
"You always want more," said Altman, winner of 97 games in his UO tenure, the best four-year stretch in school history. "Players want more, coaches want more, fans want more."
Ultimately, the Ducks ended up 24-10, and 10-8 in the Pac-12, somewhat remarkable given a 2-8 stretch in late January and early February. After an unbeaten run through nonconference play — despite the presence of eight newcomers who needed to get on the same page — Oregon lost four times by two points and another by four during the rough patch.
They got it turned around by sweeping their three Northwest rivals at home in late February, kicking off an eight-game win streak that included a Pac-12 Tournament victory over Oregon State.
"It wasn't like we were playing bad basketball," Altman said. "We just weren't getting stops, weren't getting rebounds — the kind of things that cost us against Wisconsin."
The win streak included a double-overtime thriller at UCLA, and an upset of No. 3 Arizona at Matthew Knight Arena to close out the regular season.
"It was really a credit to the players, the way they finished the year," Altman said. "Especially with all the pressure — they knew they had to win games to give themselves an opportunity to get in. A lot of times that causes teams not to play very well. But they found a way to fight through."
But the season came crashing to a halt against the Badgers, in a game played before 18,000 partisan fans in Milwaukee. Wisconsin quickly cut into Oregon's 12-point lead early in the second half, getting hot from three-point range and grabbing a series of crucial offensive rebounds to clinch the victory.
The lack of defensive stops and inability to get rebounds were a recurrence of issues that plagued the Ducks much of the season. Newcomers Mike Moser, Jason Calliste and Joseph Young teamed with veterans Johnathan Loyd and Damyean Dotson to give Oregon a formidable backcourt, but the team never consistently replaced the presence of 2013 seniors Arsalan Kazemi and Tony Woods in the post.
"We were a small basketball team at three or four spots," Altman said. "Rebounding was something we identified right away as something we had to really focus on and make a team effort to address. Our numbers overall weren't that bad, but in particular games it bit us."
Thus does frontcourt play become a point of emphasis for Oregon this offseason, though it's just one of many in what sets up as a significant transition year under Altman.
Six seniors will depart, including the second-leading scorer (Moser), third-leading scorer and top bench player (Calliste) and starting point guard (Loyd), whose 144 games and 97 wins are the most in UO history. In addition, junior off-guard Young is exploring whether to remain in school or test the NBA draft waters.
Altman also has an assistant to replace, after Brian Fish left to become head coach at Montana State. And the Ducks have five newcomers signed to letters of intent for next season, with the beginning of the spring signing period on April 16 opening the potential for more.
The signed recruits include freshman forwards Jordan Bell and Ray Kasongo, and junior frontcourt players Dwayne Benjamin and Michael Chandler.
The Ducks will look to last year's JC transfers, Elgin Cook and Jalil Abdul-Bassit, to make bigger contributions in their second season. And Brandon Austin will be eligibile in December after sitting out a year under NCAA transfer rules.
"Dot has the personality; DA does too," Altman said. "As you get older, you're asked to do more things, and experience requires you to take over."
Further marking this as a transition year for Altman is that Young and Abdul-Bassit are the only potential seniors in 2014-15. A program whose identity in recent years has been one-year transfers like Kazemi, Moser and Calliste has the chance to build some momentum year over year going forward, thanks to roster continuity.
That's Altman's preference in the big picture, though the one-year transfers have helped the Ducks make back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for just the fourth time in school history. That's something to celebrate, no matter how jarring the end came in Milwaukee last month.