by: COURTESY OF OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY - Angus Brandt, a 7-foot senior, returns to the Oregon State Beavers after redshirting last season due to knee surgery.CORVALLIS -- The last time Oregon State basketball was relevant, South Africa was freeing Nelson Mandela, the USSR was being dissolved, Clyde Drexler was leading the Trail Blazers into the NBA finals and "The Simpsons" was making its debut on Fox.

The year was 1990, Gary Payton's senior season and the last time the Beavers made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, the latest Craig Robinson, who begins his sixth season at the OSU helm with Tuesday's first practice session at the school's new practice facility.

"This place is stunning," Robinson said as he met with media outside the $15 million structure, which opened its doors last month. "We've had recruits in, and it is an absolute difference-maker for us. We are making a statement that basketball is big-time at Oregon State."

Now is the time for Robinson and the Beavers to prove it on the court.

Oregon State went 14-18 a year ago, including 4-14 in Pac-12 play. Over his first five seasons in Corvallis, Robinson is 78-89 overall -- a lamentable 31-59 in conference games.

There were plenty of close losses last season -- nine by six points or fewer. They were losses, just the same.

Maybe Oregon State is moving closer to respectability. The problem is, fewer members of Beaver Nation seem to care these days. The Beavers averaged 4,784 for their 17 home dates last season, drawing fewer than 7,500 for every Pac-12 home game except Oregon. Fans have grown weary of the decades of losing, and little has seemed to have changed in the Robinson era.

Robinson believes a return to the NCAA Tournament is … well, coming.

"I want to say right now," he says. "I believe we're close. We're still at a place where everything has to go perfectly. But that's OK. When I came, things could go perfectly and we still didn't have a chance."

Things usually don't go perfectly through a season, so I guess Robinson really doesn't expect to make the NCAA Tournament. A year ago, I wrote that an NIT appearance would be a reasonable goal, but it turned out that the Beavers weren't close.

A big part of the reason was lousy defense. Oregon State was third in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (72.0) but last in scoring defense (70.2) and 11th in opponents' field-goal percentage (.431). There were far too many easy baskets for the opposition at the rim.

"We have to be a better defensive team," Robinson acknowledges. "I think we will be."

The Beavers lose only forward Joe Burton and guard Ahmad Starks from last year's club. Neither was a strong defender, so ostensibly, that's addition by subtraction at the defensive end.

During Robinson's first four years, an assortment of zone defenses were the staple. Last year, he began a conversion to man-to-man that will continue this season.

"You have to have players committed to playing man defense," he says. "We've been a prolific scoring team, and then defense gets a little lax. I have to tune us up there. In order to win a championship or win a lot of games, you have to be a very good defensive team. It's a mentality you need to have."

The Beavers will have three interior defenders they didn't have a year ago -- 7-foot senior Angus Brandt, who redshirted last season after having knee surgery; 6-10 sophomore Daniel Gomis, who missed the past two years with leg injuries, and 7-foot freshman Cheikh N'diaye, like Gomis a native of Senegal. Robinson considers Gomis his premier interior defender and N'diaye good enough at the defensive end to play immediately.

"N'diaye is not quite ready offensively, but I can put him on the floor right now for defensive purposes," Robinson says. "You'll be surprised by how many shots he blocks as a freshman."

Add 6-10 junior Eric Moreland, 6-0 sophomore Olaf Schaftenaar and 6-8 senior Devon Collier and the Beavers ought to have plenty of protection at the rim.

Collier and Moreland will start the season in purgatory as the result of an unspecified violation of team rules during the offseason. Collier, who averaged 12.6 points and 6.0 rebounds and was the team's top inside offensive player as a junior, will miss two exhibition games and the regular-season opener against Coppin State. Moreland, who averaged 9.4 points and was second in the Pac-12 in rebounds (10.6) and blocked shots (2.5) as a sophomore, will miss half the season because it's his second suspension. He will return for the Jan. 9 home game against Stanford.

The loss of Moreland for such an extended period of time is a blow.

"I was devastated," said senior guard Roberto Nelson, who led OSU in scoring last season and was fifth in the conference at 17.8 points. "That's a buddy of mine. He's not just a teammate; it's like a brother. It hurt me a little bit. I's going to be a big loss. He does a lot for us. He's a leader on and off the court.

"I have to make sure I'm staying on the younger guys, making sure they're doing the right thing, and that we'll fill in the gaps. We have to make sure everybody is setting the bar higher every day. Once we do that, we'll be fine."

The backcourt seems thin. Nelson and junior point guard Challe Barton -- who averaged 2.9 points and 1.4 assists while shooting .409 from the field and .325 from 3-point range last season -- will start. Barton needs to make a quantum leap at the offensive end in order to become a quality Pac-12 player.

Behind them will true 6-6 sophomore swing man Victor Robbins and a pair of true freshmen -- 6-3 Hallice Cooke of Union City, N.J., and 6-2 Malcom Duvivier of Toronto. Cooke, Duvivier and N'Diaye have made a good impression on their veteran teammates during preseason workout sessions.

"They live in the gym," Brandt says. "It's something I haven't seen from a freshman class since I've been here. They're trying to take guys' minutes and earn their spot in the team. That will press the older guys to play better in practice and, ultimately, in games."

Robinson's job is not on the line this year. With four years and $5.23 million remaining on a contract that runs through 2017, he'll be around at least another year no matter how the Beavers fare this season.

At some point, though, he is going to have to get a team into the real postseason and not just something called the CBI. With verbal commitments from a trio of three-star prep seniors -- guards Chai Baker of Malone, Fla., and Devin Watson of Carlsbad, Calif., and 6-10 center Isaiah Manderson from Oldsmar, Fla. -- Robinson continues to sell the program. On-the-court results are next.

"We have talent," he says. "We have competitiveness. We have attitude. We have facilities. We have something to sell (recruits). So we're close. (The NCAA Tournament) is our goal. We're just real depth away."

Nelson knows preseason talk is just that. It's time to walk the walk and make a moribund program relevant at last.

"We have to focus on the little things that translate to the big things," the senior guard says. "We have to set little goals in hope they'll translate into something big. We want to make the NCAA Tournament, but you can't just say you want to go. You have to do all the little things that get you there."

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