Oregon State Slowly But Surely Returning to RelevancePosted by Rockne Andrew Roll (@raroll) on February 3rd, 2014
Rockne Andrew Roll is an RTC correspondent. You can also find him at @raroll. Rockne filed this report after Oregon State’s upset victory over UCLA Sunday afternoon.
A year ago, Oregon State was 1-8 in conference play and well on its way to Craig Robinson’s third losing season in five years in Corvallis. This year? UCLA’s Steve Alford summed it up rather succinctly after the Bruins’ 71-67 loss at Gill Coliseum on Sunday. His words were not intended for public consumption, but his frustration with his team’s performance gave his words such volume that they were crystal clear on the other side of the cinder block wall that separates the visiting locker room from the press room. “They’re not so bad now, are they?” Alford said of the Beavers, who are now 5-4 in Pac-12 play.
After the disappointment of last season, the impact of beating the second-place team in the conference wasn’t lost on Robinson. “I have to reiterate how big that win was to our team, our program, to our school,” he said. “It’s been 14 or 15 years since we’ve been this relevant, this late in the season. It’s not by accident.” Nor was it lost on his players, particularly his seniors, who have suffered through many a heartbreak. “We haven’t been above .500 this late in the season since I’ve been here. From a fifth-year senior standpoint, it’s absolutely massive,” said senior center Angus Brandt. “It’s what we’ve been working toward this entire time. In terms of confidence, it just solidifies in our mind that we’re a team to compete with in this conference.”
So what’s changed since last year? Quite a bit. For starters, true freshman guard Hallice Cooke has worked his way into the starting lineup alongside Roberto Nelson and Langston Morris-Walker, demonstrating his quality with a 7-of-9 shooting performance and a game-high 20 points against the Bruins. Beyond simply scoring, though, Cooke has already put himself in a position of leadership within the Beavers’ locker room. “I don’t consider him a freshman anymore,” junior forward Eric Moreland said of Cooke. “That’s the point guard, he’s our point guard now. I’m an upperclassmen, but anything he has to say, I’m going to listen. I know he knows what he’s talking about. He’s been on the big stage before and he puts in the work. He’s a leader. As a freshman, that says a lot.”
“Hallice is not your typical freshman. He’s playing like he’s been here before,” Robinson said. “It didn’t just start when he was in the starting lineup; he’s done it all season long.” Cooke’s emergence at the point has prompted another positive change for the Beavers with the continuing evolution of Nelson. Nelson averaged 17 points per game last year and was the Beavers’ top scoring option, but with the number of weapons that surround him now, he doesn’t have to take on the burden of filling up the stat sheet. Nelson shot 2-of-8 and notched 12 points, but Robinson was still happy with his performance, evidence of his transition from point-grabber to playmaker.
“Outside of his turnovers, I thought he was playing well within what we were doing. Tonight, Robert knew that he had to sort of play the decoy role,” Robinson explained. “We saw early on, when he flinched with the ball, there were two guys coming at him. Once he realized that, he was the reason that he had five guys in double figures because he helped set those guys up. That is impressive to win when Roberto Nelson only has 12 points. That just shows you what kind of playmaker he can be.”
Nelson has also been crucial when the clock was not running or when it’s not game day. Robinson recalled that — while he was eviscerating his Beavers for letting UCLA back into the game during a timeout — Nelson got him back on track. “I called a timeout, I was getting on them, and Roberto said to me, ‘All right, what’s the next thing?’” the coach said. “He was like, ‘OK, we get it, we made a mistake, what’s the next thing?’ I couldn’t be mad at them after that. I was almost so mad at them that I didn’t give them any instruction.”
Cooke, who’s ascendancy to the starting lineup has made him Nelson’s regular running mate in the backcourt, appreciates how Nelson has helped him develop as the floor leader he has become. “He knows the offense inside and out. He gives me little pointers all the time,” Cooke said. “He’s been a very good mentor since I got here. He took me under his wing and it’s paying off.” But Robinson said the biggest change has been having Brandt available. Brandt, a seven-foot post with reliable three-point range, tore his ACL in an early non-conference contest against Purdue last year and missed almost the entire season. “He’s a very good player and a calming influence and we’re a completely different team without him. When we had him out in this game, we had to play a little differently,” Robinson said of his Australian big man. Brandt knocked down 13 points and sealed the victory by drawing a charge on Jordan Adams as he attacked the rim with 15 seconds left and the Bruins down by one. “That was the game-winning play,” Robinson said. “To see a 6’10″ kid make a play like that on Adams, who’s a good player and knows how to get fouled, he played that perfectly.”
On top of their overtime win against USC earlier in the week, protecting home court against the Bruins definitely gives OSU a bit of momentum as it heads on the road for a three-game stretch against an exceptional Arizona squad and a bitter-as-ever rivalry match against reeling Oregon. But it almost feels like the tide has started to turn in Corvallis, that the dark days of losing records may be fading. “The recruitment keeps getting better; the program keeps getting more things; and the recruits are going to keep coming,” Moreland said.
The Beavers recently opened a new 34,500-square foot practice facility, and are fielding their best freshman class in years. The fans have noticed too; even on Super Bowl Sunday, the student section was noisy and the empty seats were confined to the high, dark corners of venerable old Gill Coliseum. “I want to thank Beaver Nation,” Robinson said. “To see the amount of students that were there and how loud they were, I promise you that our guys feel that, especially when they need that, when they need a little run. We were down 11 and when we started coming back, you could feel the crowd pushing the guys forward. I’m sure the other team heard it and felt it.”
Between drawing crowds on Super Bowl Sunday, beating top conference opposition, and a high-caliber freshman class that has already made an impact, it shouldn’t take a coach screaming through a cinder block wall for the college basketball world to see that the Beavers are no longer Pac-12 cupcakes. How far they’ll climb up the conference ladder, though, remains to be seen. “I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Robinson said. “They deserve to enjoy this day, but we’re getting right back to work.” “Our goal is to make the Tournament. This game is huge for us in terms of reaching that goal,” Brandt said. “We just take one game at a time. But we’re going to enjoy this one for a while.”