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The lessons of a lost year for Oregon State men's basketball
CORVALLIS — Based on performance and quality of schedule, Oregon State's ratings percentage index (RPI) is 290th among the nation's 351 Division-I basketball teams.
Oregon, the Beavers' next opponent in Saturday's Civil War contest and regular-season finale at Gill Coliseum, ranks No. 4.
Portland State is No. 270. Portland is No. 241. Washington — the next-lowest Pac-12 school — is No. 213.
"In a typical year, you wouldn't want that," says Wayne Tinkle, OSU's third-year coach. "But when you look at all the things that have happened to us, it's no surprise we're in that situation."
If the Beavers (5-25 overall, 1-16 in Pac-12 play) lose to Oregon and in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament, they'll finish with the program's fewest wins since the Orangemen of H.W. Hargiss, who went 3-13 in 1918-19 — 98 years ago.
"It's been difficult on all of us," Tinkle says. "We're used to winning, but we've had a lot of adversity thrown at us."
Tinkle's first two years at the OSU helm were a rousing success story.
Picking up the pieces after Craig Robinson was fired, Tinkle's first team overachieved, going 17-14 overall and 8-10 in Pac-12 action despite being picked to finish last in the conference.
Last season, behind senior guard Gary Payton II, the Beavers went 19-13 and 9-9 and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1990.
Gill Coliseum was a fortress, the Beavers winning 29 of 34 games at home during Tinkle's first two seasons.
The ceiling collapsed abruptly this season, with Payton and four other senior rotation players gone along with frisky freshman point guard Derrick Bruce (who transferred) and junior guard Malcolm Duvivier, a two-year starter who left school.
The top remaining guard, Stevie Thompson Jr., was hurt early and missed six games. Then the team's best player, 6-8 Tres Tinkle, was lost after six games with a wrist injury that has cost the coach's son the rest of the season. Tinkle averaged 20.2 points and 8.3 rebounds in the six games.
The remaining cast proved inadequate, not only against Pac-12 competition but against such opponents as Portland, Savannah State and Long Beach State.
The disparity in Oregon State's field-goal percentage (.432) and 3-point percentage (.345) and that of the opposition (.344 and .359) is not enough to serve as portent of a 5-25 record.
The problem has come at the free-throw line, where OSU is shooting a flaccid .660 and has taken 118 fewer attempts than foes. And in turnover differential, where the Beavers have averaged 15.5 per game, 334th nationally and four more per contest than the opposition.
"We've shot ourselves in the foot a lot by being careless with the ball," Tinkle says. "And we've cost ourselves chances to win games with poor foul shooting. We're not aggressive enough, because we're not physically mature enough to get to the line, and we haven't converted at a number we need to."
The Beavers also have not defended well enough, particularly on the perimeter.
"I feel that way about all of our guys, both in man-to-man and zone on the perimeter," Tinkle says. "We don't keep the ball in front of us like we should.
"I don't know if it's because (the opponent) is cognizant of our lack of depth there. But I know this: When we do have that depth next year, you'll see a different level of intensity from our players. If you don't guard, you're not going to be able to play."
That's not been the case this season. There is no depth. For much of the season, it appeared Oregon State had four players capable of competing at the Pac-12 level — Thompson Jr., sophomore center Drew Eubanks and freshmen guards JaQuori McLaughlin and Kendal Manuel. You could probably slide a fifth player — 6-10 sophomore Gligorij Rakocevic — into the conversation off his play the past two weeks. Still, that's not close to the number of players needed to be competitive in conference action.
OSU coaches struck out on a pair of junior-college recruits, forward Keondre Dew (no longer in school) and guard Ronnie Stacy. The coaches wanted to redshirt McLaughlin, and figured Manuel wouldn't play until his junior season. Both have been pressed into heavy duty as starters. McLaughlin has played the most minutes on the team, averaging 33.7 per game. The 6-4, 185-pound guard has averaged 10.8 points and is shooting a solid .384 from 3-point range.
"JaQuori has been thrown into the fire," the senior Tinkle says. "He's had his ups and downs, but it's going to pay dividends down the road for sure. He has come a long way with his mental toughness. He still has to learn the level of intensity you have to play with at this level. That's going to come after he gets himself physically mature."
Thompson Jr. — son of OSU assistant Stevie Thompson Sr. — is the team's leading scorer, ranking seventh in the Pac-12 at 16.2 points per game. But he has shot only .399 from the field, .327 from 3-point territory and .625 from the foul line. The 6-4, 175-pound sophomore has turned the ball over often and played inadequate defense.
"There's been a lot of pressure on him because he doesn't have much experience (from teammates) out there with him," Tinkle says. "Malcolm and Tres would have relieved a lot of burden there. Stevie may be worn down a little because of the physicality and athleticism in our conference. He needs to get into the weight room and get stronger, which will help him defend at this level."
Eubanks has been Oregon State's best player, averaging 14.5 points and ranking among the Pac-12 leaders in blocked shots (second, 2.2), field-goal percentage (fourth, .590) and rebounds (eighth, 8.3).
"I'm proud of Drew for how much he has improved in a short amount of time," Tinkle says of the 6-10, 240-pound Troutdale native. "He knows he still has a long way to go. He needs to work on his consistency of effort and focus, which will come as he continues to mature. But he has become a warrior for us. He will be a force to be reckoned with the next couple of years."
It's hard not to look ahead to next season, when Tres Tinkle returns as a sophomore after a medical redshirt year. Senior center Cheikh N'diaye, who played only nine games this season due to a shoulder injury, is another potential medical redshirt.
It's also possible that the 6-2 Duvivier — who is enrolled at OSU for winter term and is dealing with some personal issues — will return for a senior season in 2017-18. Duvivier is expected to graduate during spring or summer term, but could work toward a master's degree next year.
"We've told him, 'Get healthy, get your degree, and we'll have the offseason to discuss whether basketball fits in,'" Tinkle says. "He has been to some of our practices. We love having him around and are glad he is heading in the right direction."
The Beavers have signed two prep stars -- 6-4 guard Ethan Thompson, younger brother of Stevie Jr., from Gardena, California, and 6-5 swing man Zach Reichle from Wilsonville. Both could factor into the rotation immediately. There are three other potential scholarships to fill.
"The priority is to get two 'bigs,'" Tinkle says. "The third one will be the best player available — perhaps a shifty point guard or an athletic wing."
OSU coaches are looking at a host of players, among them 6-10 Dequon Lake of Iowa Western JC and 6-8 Bruce Stevens of Jones County (Mississippi) JC, 6-9 Alexis Yetna from Putnam (Connecticut) Science Academy and 7-foot Kylor Kelley of Northwest Christian. Kelley, a native of Gervais, averaged 8.6 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.6 blocks in 10 games with the Beacons before becoming academically ineligible. His brother attends OSU.
For now, the Beavers will focus on the remainder of this season, beginning with Saturday's 3 p.m. Civil War contest. Oregon beat OSU 85-43 in Eugene on Jan. 14, the most one-sided Duck victory ever in the 115-year series. The Ducks (26-4, 15-2) are ranked sixth nationally.
"We don't want to just have a good appearance," Tinkle says. "We want to put a plan in place to win the game. We want to carry some momentum into the Pac-12 tournament.
"They're very talented. We know what they did to us the last time. We're a far better team than we were in early January. We'll get our guys prepared and in the right frame of mind. It's going to be on them to execute the game plan and believe. That's the one thing you worry about with all we've been through."
Tinkle is in his 11th year as a college head coach, including eight seasons at Montana. He has experienced only one losing season and has never had a team win fewer than 14 games.
"I'd be lying if I said there haven't been some sleepless nights," Tinkle says. "But I feel like I've grown as a coach and as a man through what we've gone through this year. Our players are learning some valuable life lessons — the staff as well.
"It's only going to help us moving forward. I know — it's easy to say that. But our guys are continuing to bring energy and effort. They wouldn't be doing that if the staff weren't doing that, too. I'm lucky to have great people around me.
"We hurt for our players. They don't deserve this. But they're continuing to work and play hard. Things don't always go your way. You have to continue to grind it out."