When Oregon State coach Craig Robinson stepped to the podium at Pac-12 media day in Los Angeles three months ago, he spoke about his team with unusual confidence for a man coming off a 20-loss season.
"Over the past few years, we've been rebuilding the place at Oregon State, and I've sort of had to couch my statements with terms like, 'Well, we're going to try our best' and all that kind of stuff," Robinson said. "For the first time, I think I've got a team that can compete in every single game we play this season, and I couldn't be more excited."
Indeed Oregon State has perhaps the fourth-best talent in the watered-down Pac-12 this season behind only Washington, Cal and Arizona, yet the Beavers don't appear headed for a top-four finish so far. An overtime loss at Arizona on Thursday night dropped Oregon State to 1-4 in league play this season, ahead of only last-place USC in what is arguably the worst year for the conference in recent memory.
Granted Oregon State last two losses have been in overtime against contenders Stanford and Arizona, but the Beavers boast a solid enough nucleus to suggest that they shouldn't be satisfied with moral victories.
Junior guard Jared Cunningham leads the Pac-12 in scoring at 17.8 points per game and is among the premier players in the conference. Sophomore forward Devon Collier is an all-conference caliber talent who is shooting 63.9 percent from the field. And a supporting cast of Ahmad Starks, Roberto Nelson, Angus Brandt and Eric Moreland make this easily the most athletic team of Robinson's tenure.
What has let Oregon State down most in conference play has been its defense, which is disappointing considering the emphasis Robinson place on phasing out his 1-3-1 zone and playing more man this offseason. The Beavers rank 11th or 12th in the league in virtually every significant defensive statistic through five conference games, from field goal percentage defense, to three-pointers surrendered, to points per possession allowed.
Oregon State's offense has been significantly better, but several tweaks would improve it dramatically. Starks has received too much freedom to freelance 1-on-1 for a guard who is shooting below 40 percent from the field. And Collier has six or less field goal attempts in each of Oregon State's last five games despite his lofty shooting percentage.
A turnaround is certainly not impossible considering the sorry state of the Pac-12 this year and the fact that Oregon State has a winnable road game at Arizona State up next, followed by a homestand against UCLA and USC. Still, all hopes of contending for an at-large bid are already faint despite a solid non-conference performance in which the Beavers beat Texas and pushed Vanderbilt to the final possession.
The good news for Oregon State is that every rotation player on their roster has eligibility remaining, so the Beavers should improve again. Nonetheless, for a program that has said "Wait 'til next year" too many times in the past two decades, this season is already feeling like a golden opportunity that is slipping away.
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