OSU puts the fun back into basketball; now the hard work will begin

CORVALLIS Ñ Most coaches would beg off answering the question. Not Jay John.

To what degree has Oregon State turned around its basketball program?

'Well, it's at least 50 percent,' says John, whose Beavers went 13-15 in his first year at the helm. 'Maybe it's 75 percent. It's probably 60 percent. If it is, the next 25 percent can be made through an increase in talent, and the remaining 15 percent is what we can do with it.'

John went through what amounted to a deprogramming of his players as he prepared them for the 2002-03 season. The slowdown offensive system and harsh style of his predecessor, Ritchie McKay, had beaten down the players through a 12-17 2001-02 campaign.

'When I arrived in Corvallis, the guys had just had the passion and fun of being a student-athlete taken from them,' John says. 'It is not my job to understand why that happened; I just know it did.

'I wanted to instill the fun part back. Overall, from where we went from the start of the season to the end, from a psychological standpoint I think we had a fabulous season.'

John opened things up offensively, though not as much as he would have liked because of a lack of athleticism. He employed a high-low offense featuring seniors Philip Ricci and Brian Jackson, and experienced the high of four straight Pac-10 victories at midseason, the first time the Beavers had accomplished that in a decade.

But after a Feb. 1 win at UCLA Ñ OSU's first road triumph over the Bruins since 1988 Ñ the Beavers lost nine of their last 11, including an embarrassing 69-46 defeat to California in the Pac-10 tournament.

'Teams made adjustments against us the second half of the year, and because we weren't experienced in those situations, we became uncomfortable,' John says. 'We got shell-shocked when we lost three in a row (to Cal, Stanford and Oregon) at home and never really recovered from that. That disappointed me, because with just one more win we would have made it into postseason (NCAA or NIT) play.

'The other side of it, we were picked to finish in ninth place and we were sixth. We won more Pac-10 games than we have in five years and won more road games and had our highest Pac-10 finish in 10 years. We laid some foundation, and the benefactors are my young guys.'

Oregon State loses four players who started most of the season Ñ Ricci, Jackson, Jimmie Haywood and Floyd North, the last a sophomore who lost his starting spot and is transferring to the University of San Diego. Next year's squad will have no seniors, will be shy on experience and probably will not be as good.

'In my coaching career, I have taken a few steps backward to move forward at times,' John says. 'That is what it appears we are going to end up doing. With a lot of young guys, we may not win as many.'

The Beavers return freshman point guard Lamar Hurd, promising sophomore forward David Lucas and a few others who shared rotation minutes, including guards J.S. Nash and Chris Stephens, 6-10 forward Kevin Field, and 6-11 center Derek Potter. That is not a group that will instill fear in the heart of Pac-10 opponents next season.

But help is on the way. OSU has signed three recruits Ñ 7-2 center Liam Hughes, an English native who played for Modesto (Calif.) Christian; 6-9 forward Kyle Jeffers of Montgomery High in Santa Rosa, Calif.; and 6-5 forward Jim Hanchett of Utah Valley State, who will be a junior.

Notes: The Beavers will announce the addition of three other players on Wednesday's signing date. One of them could be Rayshaun Reed, a 5-11 scoring phenom out of Inglewood, Calif. John is in France, trying to nail down a commitment from a shooting guard. And there are more than a half-dozen other prospects on OSU's list if those fall through. 'We are going to sign some perimeter guys,' John says. 'We have to get some shooting and athleticism.'

Hurd is the only sure starter. Lucas, a walk-on who played 29 minutes as a freshman, is a likely front-line starter, but John won't even say if he has been awarded a scholarship.

Hanchette should be a starter and team leader next season. 'He is a very good rebounder, a very good athlete, has great strength and character,' John says. 'And he has a lot of intangibles we lacked this year.' É Jeffers could challenge for a starting job, too. 'I compare him to (Arizona's) Channing Frye,' John says. 'He is skinny but all of 6-9, tough-minded, active, with good hands and runs well.' É Hughes was originally a soccer player who has devoted himself to basketball only in the last two years. 'He is 7-1 3/4 barefoot,' John says. 'Put tennis shoes on him, he's 7-3. He weighs 270, so he is solid. He is already a good free-throw shooter, which is important for a big guy. He is very competitive and has come a long way. Strength, stamina and learning the game will be the keys for him.'

John has challenged Lucas to make the same strides next season that he did this season. 'He definitely has a chance to be good,' the OSU coach says of Maurice Lucas' son. 'He is the only repeat jumper we have inside, he is athletic, and he can post up. His conditioning and defense weren't very good this year. I want him to invest more so he can make the next step.'

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