Beavers yet to win, but confidence grows
CORVALLIS — There is a calm, self-assured feel to the Oregon State basketball program right now that belies history. After all, the Beavers haven’t been good — really good — since Gary Payton departed for the NBA in 1990. They have gone 21 straight seasons without 20 victories. In Craig Robinson’s first three years as coach, they have headed in the wrong direction — from 18-18 in 2008-09 to 14-18 in 2009-10 to 11-20 last season. So, the skeptic in me asks, why should this season be any different? There is still plenty of proving to do. Beginning with a Friday night exhibition against Pacific at Gill Coliseum, the Beavers will try to state their case. Four starters, including 6-4 junior guard Jared Cunningham and 6-8 sophomore forward Devon Collier, return along with three other rotation players to the team that begins counting play Nov. 12 at home against Cal State Bakersfield. Gone are seniors Calvin Haynes, Omari Johnson and Lathen Wallace, the last remnants of the Jay John era. All 15 players on board are Robinson recruits, including 6-10 redshirt freshman Eric Moreland, a former Texas-El Paso signee who missed almost all of last season after shoulder surgery. Enough talent is on hand that the Beavers aren’t shy about expressing their goal — a trip to the NCAA Tournament. “It’s reasonable,” says Moreland, who figures to be the first front-line player off the bench. “We have the talent, the depth, a good coaching staff. Everybody comes to work. No reason why we shouldn’t be in the NCAA Tournament this year.” “We want to be at the top of the Pac-12 and play in the postseason,” says Cunningham, ranked as the 36th best player in nation by National Hoops Report and one of top 100 by cbssports .com. “We’re ready to win.” Robinson isn’t discouraging such talk. “If you want to be a team that makes the NCAA Tournament, you have to make that as one of your goals,” he says. “A reasonable goal is to play well enough to get to the tournament. “That’s going to be hard. In order to get there, we want to play well every single game. We don’t want to take games off like we did in the past.” The most troubling aspect of Robinson’s first three seasons were non-conference defeats to opponents to whom the Beavers had no busy losing. In 2008-09, it was Howard and Montana State. In 2009-10, there were Texas A and M-Corpus Christi, Sacramento State, Illinois-Chicago and Seattle U (by an unforgivable 99-48 count at home). Last season, the toll included Seattle again, Texas Southern, Utah Valley, Montana and George Washington. That simply can’t happen if a program seeks respectability. “Mistakes here, mistakes there; a game here, a game there,” Robinson says. “We want to knock that out. You give yourself a winning record by not losing games you should win.” This year’s non-conference slate includes eight of 12 games at home, all against opponents Oregon State should handle. OSU is also part of a classy four-team tournament at East Rutherford, N.J., Nov. 19 to 21 that includes Texas, North Carolina State and Vanderbilt. That will provide a barometer to where the OSU program stands. “We’re at the point where we need to play games like that in non-conference,” Robinson says. “We need that kind of exposure and to be in that kind of competition.” Robinson’s first three teams were marked by a deliberate, halfcourt style on offense and a variety of zone defenses. That will change this season, the coach says. On offense, the Beavers will run. “Our team is fast,” Robinson says. “The first two groups are as fast as I’ve ever had. If we can get rebounds, we’re going to get it out and try to get some easier baskets, so we’re not spending so much time in the halfcourt as we’ve had to do the past three years.” The base defense will be a man-to-man, the coach says. “I was just waiting until we had enough athleticism and depth to play man-to-man, because you’re going to get in more foul trouble,” he says. “These guys have really taken to it. It’s still a work in progress, but I’m happy with what I’m seeing.” Cunningham, who led the team with a 14.3-point scoring average and was fifth nationally in steals at 2.83 per game, has worked hard on his perimeter shot. “He wanted to be a better outside shooter and needed to be,” Robinson says. “He has also built a nice little pull-up jump shot. If he can make that on a regular basis, he is going to be one-of-the-best-in-the-league type good.” Collier, who shot .578 from the field as a freshman, could develop into one of the better forwards into the Pac-12. Ahmad Starks, the 5-9 guard who made an impact as a freshman, has a chance to be one of the conference’s premier 3-point shooters. Sophomore guard Roberto Nelson — who bombed in 34 points in a late-season game against Arizona State last winter — returned to practice Tuesday after missing a week with a high ankle sprain. “Until he got hurt, he was just fantastic — really playing well,” Robinson says. Moreland figures to be an X factor off the bench. “He is going to help us on the boards, he has good basketball skills and he is extremely high energy,” Robinson says. “He is the one guy on our team who can run all day long. He will be a huge help.” Oregon State is still young, with one senior — forward Kevin McShane — and juniors Cunningham, Joe Burton and Angus Brandt. The rest are sophomores and freshmen. The players mention chemistry as a plus. “We just didn’t have it last year like we do this year,” Moreland says. Losing becomes a habit, just like winning. Robinson says he has been fighting that for three years. “I don’t want to disparage the older guys, but they had a culture where they didn’t win that much,” Robinson says. “These guys haven’t succumbed to that. Most of them have won most of their (high school careers). “My staff has done a great job recruiting players where the talent gap isn’t so great. When I first got here, the talent gap was huge. Now you feel like you have a fighting chance, not only in the non-conference, but in our league.” In a Pac-12 that again is expected to be only so-so from a national perspective, it’s time for Oregon State to make a jump. “There’s a different feel about this team,” Robinson says. “It’s palpable. When I walked into practice the first day, I could feel it. “A lot of this game is confidence. The first three years, our guys weren’t confident — and rightly so. We hadn’t earned the right to be confident. “And technically, we haven’t yet. We have to win some games, but it’s nice to see these guys playing with a lot of calmness, like a confident team should. I’m very excited. This is the kind of feeling you should have going into every season.” All that is left to do is to go out on the court and win. At Oregon State, it’s been a long time coming.