November 20, 2011
Unlike the past few years when Oregon State's only headline-grabbing non-league results have been embarrassing losses, the Beavers earned some rare positive November publicity on Saturday night.
A 100-95 overtime victory over youthful yet talented Texas in the Legends Classic semifinals was maybe the biggest win of coach Craig Robinson's tumultuous four-year tenure. It shows the progress the Beavers (4-0) have made since last year's dreadful 20-loss season and suggests they're ready to shed the label of underachievers and perhaps even contend for the program's first NCAA tournament bid in more than two decades.
In the first three years after Robinson took over an Oregon State program coming off a winless Pac-10 season, the success he had attracting coveted recruits like guards Roberto Nelson and Jared Cunningham seldom translated into on-court success. Not only did the Beavers amass a 20-34 conference record during that span, they made a habit of suffering a flurry of humiliating non-league losses each winter.
It was excusable in Robinson's first season when Howard, Yale and Montana State each toppled Oregon State. It was more perplexing in year two when the Beavers lost to lightly regarded Texas A&M Corpus Christi by 24 and to Seattle by 51. By last year, it was downright baffling to see a supposedly improved Oregon State team start 3-4 as a result of losses to the likes of Seattle, Texas Southern and Utah Valley.
That track record made it difficult to have faith in Robinson when he came to the podium at Pac-12 media day last month and declared, "For the first time, I think I've got a team that can compete in every single game we play this season." Yes, the Beavers boasted the explosive Cunningham and an experienced supporting cast, but lack of talent hadn't been the issue the previous season when the team lost 13 Pac-10 games.
The Texas victory is the first sign Robinson's optimism may have been warranted.
Cunningham continues to blossom into a star, following up a 35-point performance against Hofstra by lighting up the Longhorns for a career-high 37, including 20 of 23 at the free throw line. With Oregon State trailing by two late in regulation, he forced overtime by driving to the rim, drawing a foul and sinking the game-tying free throws.
The supporting cast behind Cunningham is playing with increased resolve. Center Joe Burton has made strides toward developing into a capable low-post threat. Versatile forward Devon Collier is averaging 16 points and nearly two blocks and two steals a game. And the entire team is buying into the switch from Robinson's signature 1-3-1 zone to man-to-man, which sometimes exposes the big men defensively but better suits the Beavers' length and athleticism on the perimeter.
The significance of the Texas victory for Oregon State is magnified by the lack of marquee opponents on their non-conference schedule after this tournament.
Had the Beavers lost, they would not have faced another likely NCAA tournament team until Dec. 29 when they open the Pac-12 season against Washington. Instead Oregon State draws 18th-ranked Vanderbilt in Monday's title game, a matchup that will provide Robinson's team a chance to notch another signature victory and earn more early-season publicity for all the right reasons.