Beavers give themselves a chance
CORVALLIS — Oregon State owns the state in men's college basketball this season, and the Beavers deserve to celebrate after sweeping Oregon in the Civil War series.
But there are extenuating circumstances, even after the Beavers' 72-57 victory over the Ducks before a rollicking sellout crowd Saturday night at Gill Coliseum.
The win, coupled with a 77-72 triumph at Matthew Knight Arena on Jan. 5, gives OSU a first series sweep against its in-state rival since 2009-10, when Craig Robinson was coach, Seth Tarver, Jared Cunningham, Calvin Haynes and Roeland Schaftenaar were the top players and the Pac-12 was still the Pac-10.
But this year's Ducks aren't of the same quality as the teams coach Dana Altman has had during his first eight seasons at the UO helm. These Ducks (15-10 overall, 6-6 in Pac-12 play) are in danger of breaking Altman's string of eight straight 20-win seasons.
The worm has turned since the preseason, when Oregon — two years removed from a Final Four appearance — was picked to win the Pac-12 and Oregon State to finish 10th in the media poll.
Oregon's season blew up when 7-2 freshman Bol Bol went down with a season-ending knee injury after nine games. Center Kenny Wooten suffered a broken jaw before Christmas and was lost for nearly a month, and the remaining cast has struggled just to be competitive in a weak Pac-12.
Oregon State, meanwhile, is on the upswing as it heads into the final three weeks of conference play. Coach Wayne Tinkle's Beavers (16-8, 8-4) are alone in second place in the league behind Washington (20-5, 11-1), a nice step forward for a program that just two years ago finished with the worst record in school history — 5-27, 1-17.
But Saturday's game featured a pair of decidedly imperfect teams that will almost surely need to win the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas next month to make the NCAA Tournament field.
Oregon State stands at No. 82 in the national RPI rankings, Oregon at No. 85. Washington (21st) and Arizona State (51st) are the Pac-12 schools ahead of them, so even a host of victories the rest of the way won't improve either team's RPI standing a whole heck of a lot.
If the Huskies win the Pac-12 tournament, they'll almost surely be the only team to represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament, which doesn't say much for Pac-12 basketball.
The Beavers made 1 of their first 9 3-point attempts, missed nine free throws, were outrebounded 34-27 and still beat the Ducks handily, helped by Oregon's own problems at the foul line (8 for 15), 18 turnovers and lack of any offensive help for forwards Louis King and Paul White.
Oregon State won by virtue of leadership from veterans Tres Tinkle, Stevie Thompson Jr. and Ethan Thompson and with its deft handling of Oregon's full-court pressure, which forced only one of OSU's eight turnovers over 40 minutes.
Tres Tinkle collected 13 points, seven assists and six rebounds and became the eighth player in Oregon State history to reach 1,500 career points. The 6-8 junior, who is at exactly 1,500 points, tied the scoring total his father achieved during his career at Montana from 1985-89.
The family connection runs deeper. Wayne's wife, the former Lisa McLeod, scored 1,470 points during her career at Montana. Their oldest daughter, Joslyn, scored 1,091 points while at Stanford. Youngest daughter Elle tallied 930 points while playing for Gonzaga (what a slacker).
After Saturday's victory, a fired-up Coach Tinkle and his players swept by a jam-packed OSU student section, handing out high-fives to those who cheered them on from courtside. Seniors Thompson Jr. (15 of his 22 points in the second half) and Gligorje Rakocevic (11 points on 4-for-4 shooting) came up big in their final appearance against the Ducks — unless, of course, the teams meet in the Pac-12 tournament.
"It was special for us to get that win on our homecourt and be able to sweep in this rivalry," Thompson Jr. said. "We wanted to go out our last time in a Civil War game with a win."
Altman is now 12-6 against Oregon State, and Tinkle is 4-6 against Oregon. Oregon State leads the series that began in 1902 by a 189-163 count. But from 1994 to when Tinkle took over the reins in Corvallis in 2014, Oregon held a whopping 34-9 advantage.
Tinkle was asked if the sweep of the Ducks checks a box as he works to build his program in Corvallis.
"Certainly, that's one of the things," Tinkle said. "But in our practices and meetings, this week was more about a big league game than a rivalry. We talked about the way things were going with other (Pac-12) teams, we needed to stay focused on our business — winning a home league game here down the stretch (of the regular season)."
Oregon State's zone defense was the best it has been in several weeks, but outside of King (20 points and eight rebounds) and White (10 of his 12 points in the second half), Oregon missed plenty of open shots and stumbled around through 40 minutes of ineffectiveness.
Wooten took two shots and totaled four points and two rebounds in 28 minutes.
"Kenny has to want the ball more," Altman said. "He's really struggling offensively."
Junior point guard Payton Pritchard had seven assists but scored only four points on 1-for-4 shooting, making his only field goal in the final five minutes, with the issue all but decided.
"We need more shots for Pritchard," Altman said. "That's poor coaching. He's been playing good. He's a good offensive player. To get only four shots — that's on me."
Is there time for Oregon to turn things around this season?
"We're talented enough to," Altman said. "We have to be much more disciplined. I have to do a much better job of pushing them, because we're not responding to what we're trying to do. We just have to get better. You can't go on the road and play like that and be successful."
Altman was asked if the goal now is to finish in the top four in the league standings and earn a bye in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.
"Our goal is to go Thursday night (to play USC) and play better than we did tonight," he said. "That's the only goal I've got."
The Beavers' chances for a second NCAA Tournament bid in Tinkle's six years as coach would be much better had they taken care of business in three early-season nonconference games against St. Louis (17-9), Texas A&M (10-14) and Kent State (19-6) — teams they lost to by a total of 10 points. Had the Beavers won those games, they would be 19-5 and positioned nicely with three weeks to go.
As it is, Oregon State plays four of its final regular-season games on the road, beginning Thursday at UCLA and Saturday at USC. Home dates with Arizona and Arizona State and games at Washington and Washington State finish OSU's regular-season slate. The Beavers are in second but only three games ahead of 10th-place Arizona (5-7), which beat OSU 82-71 at Tucson on Jan. 19.
Tinkle was asked if the win over Oregon signaled the Beavers are ready for a strong finish.
"It's a good start," he said. "We just have to bring our hard hats and our lunch pails every day."
Tres Tinkle — a strong candidate for Pac-12 Player of the Year — has been hampered by an ankle sprained in the first meeting with the Ducks. He missed only one game but has been unable to practice until last week.
"We had everybody available, and that helped our intensity in practice," Coach Tinkle said. "That's a key. These guys feed off one another. When we're whole, the chemistry is special."
Tres Tinkle and the Thompsons are three of the better players in the conference. Junior center Kylor Kelley — the best shot-blocker in the Pac-12 — and Rakocevic provide solid post play. If sophomore small forward Alfred Hollins — who contributed eight points and five boards in 20 minutes off the bench against Oregon — is on his game, the Beavers have a number of weapons at both ends.
"I feel like this was the best we've ever played as a team," Rakocevic said Saturday night. "Now we have to stay focused and practice for a few days and get ready for the L.A. schools. That's a big road trip for us."
The Beavers feel like an NIT team, and they'll get there if they can close something like 4-2 and perhaps win a game at the Pac-12 tournament. Or maybe they'll come up big and win the whole thing in Las Vegas and get to the Big Dance.
Either scenario will take some doing, but at least the Beavers have given themselves a chance. We'll see what happens the rest of the way.