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The TALL bloke

• OSU recruit say he's still no pretty player, but he's eager to learn

CORVALLIS Ñ The future of Oregon State basketball may not be 7-2 and 310 pounds, with size 17 feet and an accent that smacks of Austin Powers.

But it could be a big part of it, with the emphasis on big.

The Beavers have played intercollegiate basketball for more than a century, but never have they had a player with more size than freshman Liam Hughes. Swede Halbrook (1953-55) was 7-3 but didn't weigh nearly as much as Hughes, whose body takes up almost as much real estate as the Spruce Goose.

The key is to get the body moving more quickly than the Spruce Goose, which is a work in progress. Hughes is redshirting, and the 20-year-old native of Hullbridge, England, is working hard to move from 'project' to 'player' in the OSU program.

So far, so good.

'Liam is progressing well,' second-year OSU coach Jay John says. 'He has improved his body and his conditioning. He has gotten a lot better at blocking shots, and he has shown some signs of having some offensive moves. I have no timetable of 'when' for Liam, but he is going to get there.'

Where 'there' is remains to be determined. Hughes has big goals for reasonable expectations.

'I want to take basketball as far as it will take me,' says Hughes, 20, engaging and thoughtful in an interview before last Saturday's Civil War win over Oregon at Gill Coliseum. 'I try to get better every time I step onto the floor. I figure if I keep improving, who knows? Obviously, the NBA would be lovely one day, but I understand you have to be a great player. I'm not sure if I'm going to be that good or what.'

Nobody is, but there's hope, especially since Hughes is such a neophyte at the game. He grew up in a town of 8,000 people 45 miles from London, the son of 6-8 Dave, a salesman of printer machines, and 5-11 Carol, who coaches netball ('a women's game in England that is a strange version of basketball,' Liam explains). Liam's physical activity focused elsewhere.

'I played a little bit of everything,' he says. 'Quite a bit of rugby, some swimming, a little cricket, a little track and field. I thought rugby was my chosen sport, really, even at my size.'

Hughes didn't really begin playing basketball until joining a club team as a 6-10, 260-pound freshman in high school.

'There's some school basketball in England, but they don't teach you anything,' Hughes says. 'It's a ridiculously low standard. There are no plays. I wasn't allowed to cross the halfcourt. I played only defense. I don't really count that as playing basketball. I didn't get any coaching. It was throw a ball in and say, 'Here you go, play.'

'So when I was asked to try out for a club team, it was good. I had no real basketball skills, but they liked me because I was tall. I enjoyed it, so I kept going.'

How bad was Hughes when he started?

'Terrible,' he says. 'I had no coordination. Couldn't bend over to touch my toes. I was very overweight and had trouble carrying it. The thing I found I could do was throw my weight around and play a bit of defense.'

Within months, Hughes had decided he wanted to play college basketball, and he was advised to play high school ball in the United States. Several players from his area of England had gone to Modesto (Calif.) Christian, so he followed suit.

As a 7-1, 265-pound sophomore, Hughes attracted attention immediately. As a senior, he averaged 11.5 points, 15 rebounds and five blocked shots in helping Modesto Christian to the California state 5-A finals.

By that time, Hughes had declared for Oregon State after turning down scholarship offers at Stanford, Oregon and Washington. OSU assistant coach Jeff Reinert had watched Hughes in a summer-league tournament in Las Vegas before his senior season.

'I told Jay, 'He is a guy we don't need right now, but he does too many good things to pass up,' ' Reinert says. 'His size was such a factor. He was able to change a game at both ends by taking up so much space. I was impressed how he knew to space himself defensively. That showed me some basketball intelligence. He made free throws. He wasn't a big stiff out there.'

Corvallis works its charm

Hughes says he surprised himself by making Oregon State his choice.

'This is not where I expected to end up,' he says. 'But the coaching staff was very friendly. I liked what they said, and their philosophy. I became more interested in the school, and on my visit, I enjoyed the town of Corvallis. Not too big, a good college town, and not full of pollution like L.A. I liked the guys on this team. I hung out with them and really enjoyed them. I decided this is the place I wanted to be.'

Hughes' game is not near where it needs to be for him to be a factor at the Pac-10 level. John made the decision early that he would redshirt the big freshman. 'But if he were ready, we would be playing him now,' the OSU coach says.

Hughes is a plodder, and his offensive skills are limited. That said, John is high on the youngster.

'I like everything about Liam,' John says. 'Some big guys are shy about being 7-2. Liam is proud of it and plays like it. He is extremely competitive. He has a mean streak about him when he plays. He rebounds and defends extremely well. He is strong as all get-out, and he likes contact.

'There are some conditioning and footwork issues Ñ he has never been in shape in his life, but he is getting better. We need to be able to throw the ball into Liam and know there is a good chance he is going to get a basket or get fouled. He knows he has things to learn, but he wants to learn, and he works real hard.'

Coach sees lots of promise

Redshirting is frustrating at times, Hughes says, 'but it is going to be best for me in the long run.'

And practicing every day against college players has been a fresh experience.

'I never liked playing against a lot of short people in high school,' Hughes says. 'They cheat and get away with it. It's nice to be able to play against some bigger guys with a more traditional post game, rather than avoiding little guys who do cheap stuff to trick you out of your points. One of the things I hated in high school was to chase some guy around the perimeter. I am terrible at that. I like defending big guys. I am not a pretty player to watch. You do what you can do. If I can push someone out of the key, he can't get to the basket quite so easily.'

John and Reinert say Hughes has fit in nicely with his teammates.

'He is a fabulous kid with a great personality, and the kids like him,' John says.

When John was an assistant coach at Butler, he recruited a 7-2 center named Rolf van Rijn.

'Rolf had some of the same issues as Liam, but when he arrived at Butler, everything started to change for our program,' John says. 'He became a four-year starter and created some problems for the opposition.'

Nobody is sure how much Hughes will play next season. Oregon State has no seniors this season, so he will have to prove himself. Some day, though É

'His junior and senior years could be special,' Reinert says.

Adds John: 'Liam is going to be a player for us down the road, no doubt in my mind. We are going to get 2 1/2 to three years out of him where he will be a major contributor.'

That would be big news for the Beavers, with the emphasis on big.