If the 30,000 plus people in Lucas Oil Stadium weren't enough to notice how far the Oregon basketball program has come in three years under Dana Altman, the millions who've watched the Ducks run to the Sweet 16 are.
The Ducks have played the role of the underdog since Altman took over in 2010. His first season the Ducks had just seven scholarship players, and somehow managed to win 21 games and a CBI title. The following year with another make-shift roster, Altman led the team to 24 wins and a second-place Pac-12 finish. This season his team was picked seventh in the Pac-12 pre-season poll and then a No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament and yet were Pac-12 tournament champions and played further into the NCAA tournament then anyone in the conference save Arizona.
They met the challenges, surpassed them and looked for more, and even with the loss in the Sweet 16 to likely NCAA champion Louisville, Oregon is fighting to change their national perception from underdog to contender.
Nothing furthers a program greater than a deep advance into the NCAA tournament. It provides millions the opportunity to be introduced to Oregon's story lines, to hear Jin Nance and Clark Kellogg discuss the future of the program and what could be for the Ducks.
When Altman arrived in Eugene in the spring of 2010, he talked about playing a style of play that would excite the fan base, attract good players and win basketball games. The Ducks tournament run exhibited that style.
When faced with the most aggressive defensive team in the country, the Ducks pressed back, running up and down the court with the Cardinals.
The tournament's results might go a long way in connecting with a fan base that has felt disconnected since the height of the Ernie Kent era and the opening of Matthew Knight Arena. It's easy to see why, under Altman, Oregon has mended its roster with two-year and often one-year players, finding cohesion with such players is much more difficult than four-year stars like Luke Jackson and Maarty Leunen.
But the Ducks' freshman backcourt of Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis are just that: freshman, and it's time for fans to embrace them as the future of the program, one which is clearly on the rise.
Matthew Knight Arena sold out just twice this season, when it hosted Washington and Stanford. The average attendance for Pac-12 games was just 9,530, 3,000 less than full capacity for a team that was competing for a Pac-12 championship. Perhaps the Ducks tournament run will turn fans into believers and increase its support.
Thousands of future collegiate athletes around the country watched Oregon upset Oklahoma State and Saint Louis and go toe-to-toe with Louisville. They saw the Ducks run-and-gun, exert full-court pressure, all while playing a nine-man rotation. That, like Altman says, is an exciting brand of basketball, one that attracts elite players. The recruiting results likely won't be yielded this year, as the most high-major prospects have already found a home, but imagine Jordan Bell starting the break with a blocked shot and Aaron Gordon finishing it with a tomahawk slam. Those possibilities are what tournament runs like the Ducks create.
And there is hardly better exposure than the praise Louisville coach Rick Pitino gave the Ducks prior to the contest and again at halftime. Pitino compared the Ducks to North Carolina (in how they got into their transition offense) a program at the pinnacle of college basketball.
Maybe I'm idealistic, but perhaps the Ducks run could actually lend to some respect in the pre-season polls. Fans know what the Ducks are losing: four senior front court players, but what about what they return? Oregon should be able to compete, for the third year in a row, for a Pac-12 title next season. Dotson, Artis and Johnathan Loyd give the Ducks the league's best backcourt. Of course the front court has more question marks than answers, but Ben Carter and Waverly Austin have shown they can play at the Pac-12 level and with the addition of Jordan Bell and Cristiano Felicio and IF Aaron Gordon chooses to select the Ducks… well that's a pretty exciting core to work around for year's to come.
Maybe exciting enough to sell out MKA and lead to another deep tournament run.