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NIT a realistic goal for Oregon State basketball

CORVALLIS — Craig Robinson knew life without Jared Cunningham would be different with his Oregon State basketball program.

The Beavers couldn’t help but miss Cunningham, the all-Pac-12 guard of last season now a rookie with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks.

But Robinson wasn’t expecting the second half of a double whammy when Angus Brandt went down with a season-ending knee injury last week against Purdue at Madison Square Garden. Brandt, a 6-10 senior center, was an anchor and team leader, a player the Beavers can’t replace.

“I still feel good about this year’s group,” Robinson said after Monday’s practice at Gill Coliseum. “If Angus hadn’t gotten hurt, I’d be feeling great.

“I don’t feel like we still can’t win a lot of games. The one thing we have is a lot of depth, and we’re going to test that early now that Angus is out.”

Robinson and I couldn’t disagree more on the depth issue as he enters his fifth season at the OSU helm. The Beavers returned virtually everyone besides Cunningham from the team that won 21 games and upset top-seeded Washington in the Pac-12 tournament a year ago — that is, until Brandt went down.

The starting five is still solid if Robinson chooses to insert 6-8 junior forward Devon Collier, whom he had decided to use as sixth man this season. Guards Ahmad Starks and Roberto Nelson and front-liners Collier, Joe Burton and Erick Moreland match up with most starting units in the Pac-12.

But Robinson likes having the pop off the bench that Collier — OSU’s leading scorer through four games at 15.5 points on .543 shooting — can provide.

“It’s nice to have a player like Devon coming off the bench, a fantastic scorer,” Robinson says. “I always like having that first guy off the bench have the ability to change the game for you.”

The coach says the fifth starter could be 6-7 freshman Jarmal Reid or 6-3 sophomore Challe Barton, “depending on whether we go big or small.”

“If we had to play a Pac-12-caliber team,” Robinson says, “it might be Devon.”

Behind Collier, Starks, Burton, Nelson, Moreland and Barton, there is no appreciable experience. Reid has three shots and six points in 35 minutes thus far this season. The other freshmen — 6-5 Langston Morris-Walker, 6-6 Victor Robbins and 6-9 Olaf Schafternaar — have seen even less time.

“I’m happy with the way the other players have stepped up in the practices since (Brandt) has been out,” Robinson says. “There’s a sense of urgency, especially on defense, to make up what Angus could do for us.”

Collier, Oregon State’s No. 2 scorer (13.1 points per game) and arguably its second-best player a year ago, is playing the good soldier when it comes to taking a bench role.

“It really doesn’t bother me,” he begins, then corrects himself. “Well, it does bother me. Everybody wants to start. But Coach Robinson is a smart guy. He does what he thinks is best for the team. If he’s making me come off the bench, there must be a good reason.

“I’m going to embrace what he wants me to do to help the team win. I’m going to continue to play my game and not let anything bring me down.”

One player who could help is 6-10, 225-pound sophomore Daniel Gomis, the native of the Senegal who has had leg problems since he arrived on campus more than a year ago. Robinson says Gomis — recruited out of vaunted Oak Hill Academy in Virginia — tweaked a knee a couple of weeks ago.

“If he’s playing,” the coach says, “he’s the best post defender we have.”

I’ve not seen any of the freshmen play, but Robinson says they are “all doing fine.”

“Jamal is the furthest ahead because he can defend at this level,” he says. “The next is Langston because he can defend his position at this level and he doesn’t turn the ball over. Vic is probably third and Olaf, because of a back injury, is probably fourth.”

Schaftenaar, younger brother of ex-OSU standout Roland Schafenaar, has some physical development to do.

“But he’s going to help us out,” Robinson says. “He can really shoot. That’ll be good for any teams that plan to zone us.”

The Pac-12 media poll had Oregon State placing eighth in the conference race. In his four previous years, the Beavers have never had even a .500 conference record, so that’s understandable.

“We’re used to that, and that’s fine,” Robinson says. “When you lose a player like Jared, people who don’t follow you don’t have any idea what you have in the coffers. The lower they pick you the better in this stage of our development.”

How is the rate of development of the OSU program in Robinson’s fifth year? Last season, the Beavers were 7-11 in conference, with two of the losses in overtime and six by eight points or fewer. They led the Pac-12 in scoring and switched from primarily playing zone to man-to-man defense, though the results were mixed at best.

That was with Cunningham, the best guard in OSU annals since Gary Payton. Even in another weak season for the Pac-12 in 2012-13, I don’t see the Beavers improving on last year’s record.

In his third year, Oregon’s Dana Altman is ahead of Robinson. Altman’s 2011-12 Ducks went 24-10, tied for second in the Pac-12 with an 11-5 mark and played in the NIT — something Robinson’s Beavers have never done.

Robinson — whose contract runs through 2017 — says he expects Oregon State to finish in the top half of the Pac-12 standings this season.

“I don’t think we’re a bottom-half team,” he says. “We shouldn’t be.”

The Beavers will know more on Nov. 30 when they face 12th-ranked Kansas in a game at Kansas City, Kan. The Men in Orange already have good wins over New Mexico State and Purdue along with a down-to-the-wire loss to Alabama. Even with a loss to Kansas, if they take care of business against the rest of the non-conference opposition (six of the other eight games are at home), they’ll be 11-2 going into their Pac-12 opener at home against Oregon on Jan. 6.

“Everybody’s dream is to make the NCAA Tournament,” Collier says. “Our goal is to win every game we play. If we make (the NCAAs), we want to win it.”

An NIT berth would be a promising compromise.