In three seasons, the Oregon Ducks have progressed over the array of post-season tournaments, from the CBI, to the NIT and now the NCAA.
Dana Altman has guided Oregon over those three seasons of improvement. On Friday, the surprising 12th-seeded Ducks (28-8) will face top-seeded Louisville (31-5) in the round of 16 in Indianapolis.
Altman couldn't be prouder.
"I'm excited but, man, it's just great to get to see those guys in the locker room all fired up," he said. "And for our fans that have waited for this. And for our state. It's good."
The Nebraska native was hired by the Ducks in the spring of 2010 to replace Ernie Kent, who was dismissed after 13 seasons at his alma mater. Oregon went 16-16 in Kent's final season.
Altman had spent the previous 16 seasons at Creighton, finishing with a 327-176 record. He led the Bluejays to 11 consecutive 20-win seasons and 13 postseasons, including seven NCAA tournament appearances.
His hiring ended a monthlong search during which several high-profile names — including Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Minnesota's Tubby Smith — were rumored to be on Oregon's wish list. Missouri coach Mike Anderson said the Ducks approached him, but he turned down the job.
At his introduction, Altman joked about the process.
"You look at my wife, you look at me, I wasn't her first choice either," he said.
At the time, Oregon basketball was at something of a turning point. The Ducks were about to open the $227 million Matthew Knight Arena, with its distinctive "forested" court. Oregon was also riding the success of its football team, which played in the BCS championship that year. Many fans expected basketball to have a national profile, too: The Ducks hadn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2008, when they were ousted in the first round by Mississippi State.
In Altman's first season, Oregon finished 21-18 and went to the College Basketball Invitational tournament, beating his former team Creighton in a best-of-three championship. The next year, the Ducks were 24-10 and went to the NIT, losing in the quarterfinals to conference rival Washington.
Going into this season, Oregon was selected to finish seventh in the Pac-12 by media members who cover the league. But then the Ducks got off to an 18-2 start and climbed to No. 10 in the AP poll.
The team struggled some after losing freshman point guard Dominic Artis to a foot injury in January. Even after he returned, Oregon was stunned with losses in its final two games, at Utah and Colorado, which cost the team the league's regular-season title. The losses also dropped the Ducks out of the rankings.
Oregon finished 12-6 in the Pac-12 for a share of second place. But the conference tournament was another story. Johnathan Loyd, who stepped in when Artis went down with his injury, came off the bench to score a season-high 19 points and Oregon defeated UCLA 78-69 in the title game.
The Ducks rode the momentum to Midwest Regional victories over fifth-seeded Oklahoma State and fourth-seeded St. Louis in San Jose, setting up Friday's game against the Cardinals. Oregon became the first No. 12 seed to advance to the round of 16 since Richmond two years ago.
"When we started the tournament I told the players I've been fortunate enough to be on teams — this is my 12th NCAA tournament as a head coach and as an assistant — and I was just as excited when they announced our name as I was for the first one when I was 27 years old," Altman said.
Since the NCAA expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Missouri is the only 12th-seeded team to advance to the round of eight, in 2002.
Louisville, which made a surprising run to the Final Four as a No. 4 seed last year, capped a 10-game winning streak by defeating Syracuse in the Big East championship game. The Cardinals defeated 16th-seeded North Carolina A&T and eighth-seeded Colorado State to advance in the Midwest Region.
Louisville is making its 39th overall NCAA appearance and 19th appearance in the round of 16. The Cardinals have won the national championship twice, in 1980 and 1986.
Oregon has been to the NCAA tournament 11 times. The Ducks' only championship was won by the storied Tall Firs team in 1939.
Oregon is 2-1 all-time against the Cardinals, most recently taking two wins in a home-and-home series that started in the 2000-01 season.