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Greg Hansen: Could Arizona-Oregon be top rivalry of the next decade? Few have been better
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Greg Hansen: Could Arizona-Oregon be top rivalry of the next decade? Few have been better

Oregon’s Dana Altman is 61 and commands the Pac-12’s most feared basketball program of the new decade. Having established the Ducks as a recruiting force to rank with Arizona and Gonzaga, the next decade should be Altman’s best.

That’s the way the great ones have done it.

At 61, Lute Olson proceeded to coach Arizona to 24 NCAA Tournament wins the next 10 seasons, doubling his previous 10-season total in Tucson. At 61, UCLA’s John Wooden put together a four-season run of 114-7 with three NCAA championships.

Altman seems equipped to move to that level, rivaling the two most successful coaches in league history.

Arizona survived exceptional coaching challenges the last 35 years, mostly from Stanford’s Mike Montgomery and UCLA’s Jim Harrick and Ben Howland, but none were able to sustain it to Olson-Wooden levels.

Unlike Montgomery, who left Stanford for an NBA job when he was 57, Altman seems unlikely to coach anywhere but Oregon until retirement. The light is shining on him.

Altman has taken full advantage of Oregon’s brand, its Nike-based wealth and international recruiting appeal. He has the type of stability and skill from his bench that Olson had with assistant coach Jim Rosborough and Wooden with Gary Cunningham, the two most accomplished assistant coaches in league history.

The Ducks recently gave 10th-year assistant coach and recruiting dynamo Tony Stubblefield a three-year, $1.5 million contract, thought to be unprecedented in the Pac-12, and also paid him $100,000 for agreeing to return this year. They then signed sixth-year assistant Mike Mennenga to a $900,000 contract through 2022.

Now’s the time for the Oregon Ducks.

Some contend that the Ducks were the Pac-12’s best basketball program of the 2010-19 decade, and that Oregon’s burst to the 2017 Final Four and return to the top 10 this season means this Arizona-or-Oregon dialogue is not an issue.

You could make a good case that the Ducks surpassed Arizona and UCLA as the league’s preeminent programs, but it’s too close to call.

Here’s how the Pac-12 played out across the decade, 2010-19, in conference games:

Arizona 129-51; five league titles.

Oregon 112-68, two league titles.

UCLA 109-71, one league title.

No other team won 100 conference games.

Victories in the NCAA Tournament? Arizona and Oregon both won 13 games. UCLA won nine.

Altman was coaching at Creighton in the first year of the decade, 2009-10, the year Sean Miller put in some tough mileage as Arizona’s first-year coach, finishing 16-15.

The next nine seasons, Miller and Altman became the Pac-12’s most successful coaches, prevailing over one-time challengers such as UCLA’s Steve Alford and Washington’s Lorenzo Romar.

From 2010-19, Arizona and Oregon split everything down the middle.

The two went 10-10 against one another. Both were 6-3 at home and split a pair of Pac-12 Tournament games. It’s a lot like the Duke-North Carolina rivalry in the ACC.

It has become the West Coast’s Game of the Year whenever Arizona and Oregon meet, and Thursday’s showdown in Eugene has the same elements of a 1990s Arizona-UCLA game and a 2000s Arizona-Stanford battle.

One caution: There is still much work to do.

After Ralph Miller retired at Oregon State in 1989, the Beavers painted his name on the court at Gill Coliseum: Ralph Miller Court. In the 1990s, Oregon State went 131-49 in conference games. Ralph Miller was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and set the standard of excellence for his Pac-12 successors.

In retrospect, Oregon’s just-completed basketball decade, while exceptional, still doesn’t get the Ducks into Ralph Miller territory. Here are the Super Seven decades of Pac-10/12 basketball from 1980 to 2019:

1. Arizona, 1990s: 142-38

2. UCLA, 1990s: 133-47

3. Oregon State, 1980s: 131-49

4. Arizona, 2010s: 129-51

5. Stanford, 2000s: 125-55

6. Arizona, 2000s: 124-56

7. UCLA, 2000s: 117-63

The Ducks were five victories short of that exclusive club from 2010-19, but they enter the ’20s with all the components lined up to challenge the Arizona-UCLA excellence of the ’90s, when both won a national championships.

The Super Seven also speaks to the work of Sean Miller in the decade just completed.

No, Arizona didn’t get to the Final Four, and Miller’s career will forever carry an asterisk if he doesn’t coach in a national semifinal. But he was a referee’s whistle away from the 2014 Final Four and what appeared to be a dead-on Jamelle Horne 3-pointer in the 2011 Elite Eight.

As the years go by, many UA fans have come to realize just how difficult the NCAA Tournament can be when matched against, say, an Elite Eight Wisconsin club putting together the greatest year in school history, or a Xavier team having a career night at the Sweet 16.

Sean Miller won 129 conference games in the decade, the fourth- best total in the post-Wooden years. It puts him in company with Ralph Miller and Olson, which often goes unappreciated.

These long-term rivalries rarely work out the way the Roy Williams vs. Mike Krzyzewski duel has.

The only Pac-10/12 coaching rivalry sustained more than 10 years at the highest level was Olson against Montgomery.

Now, with Miller just 51 and Altman entering his prime years, the Pac-12 has a chance to be blessed with its own version of Duke vs. North Carolina.

Appreciate it while it lasts.

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or ghansen@tucson.com.

On Twitter: @ghansen711.

Columnist

Greg graduated from Utah State, worked at two Utah newspapers, the St. Petersburg Times, the Albany Democrat-Herald in Oregon and moved to Tucson to cover UA football and baseball. He became the Star's sports columnist in 1984.

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