Energy, pride, chemistry and communication.
All are areas Oregon State points to as factors in the team’s improvement on the defensive end in recent weeks.
The numbers bear out that the Beavers have been one of the Pac-12’s better defenses since the start of the men’s basketball conference schedule.
OSU (10-5, 2-1 Pac-12) leads the Pac-12 in scoring defense at 62.3 points and field goal percentage defense (38.6) in conference games heading into Thursday’s game at No. 17 Arizona (12-4, 2-1).
“I think we’re playing with a lot more energy on the defensive end and that’s been leading to people getting in the help gap,” said junior guard Stevie Thompson. “I think we’ve become better at understanding our zone and the different principles of our zone, and it’s become real effective for us recently.”
The Beavers have held three of their last four opponents to under 40 percent shooting from the floor.
The last time the program had such a stretch involving conference teams came in coach Wayne Tinkle’s first season (2014-15) at OSU, when five of six Pac-12 opponents were under 40 percent. Those six teams, facing the Beavers in the first half of conference play, shot a combined 35.2 percent.
Since then, Oregon State has held consecutive conference opponents under 40 percent twice, versus the Washington schools that same season and Colorado and Stanford in 2015-16.
Tinkle said it was late in the calendar, as the team was running through a six-game win streak, that the players began to find the urgency on the defensive end that had been missing.
The players believed they would get better because of the team’s increasing depth and talent, the coach said, but forgot that they needed to improve their fundamentals.
But with the start of conference play, Dec. 29 at home against Colorado, “those guys did, in a way, flip the switch,” Tinkle said. “Their concentration was more noticeable, their intensity and focus. So now we’ve got to make sure that’s a daily focus, that we don’t ever step backwards in those areas.”
The Colorado game marked the second straight game holding an opponent under 40 percent. The Beavers slipped a bit two days later against Utah, but they returned to form against Oregon, holding the Ducks to 36.2 percent, their second-lowest number of the season.
Oregon State gained comfort in playing in its zone defense late in the nonconference schedule, in large part because its man-to-man principles improved.
Sophomore forward Tres Tinkle said it can be difficult to gain chemistry in the zone defense because it’s a matchup zone and there are a lot of concepts to be learned.
But in recent weeks, the Beavers have found whatever they needed to and made open spots on the floor hard to find.
“There’s possessions where we’re flying around, locked in and it’s tough and you see the frustration on the other team’s face,” Tres Tinkle said.
Coach Tinkle said after the Oregon win that this season’s team is starting to play defense similar to what his first two OSU teams did.
The statistics in the last four games support that.
In addition to the strong numbers in scoring and field goal percentage, the Beavers are first in steals (9.0) and third in rebounding margin (plus-3.4) in conference games.
Drew Eubanks has a team-best 27 rebounds in that stretch. Seth Berger’s 17 boards are two more than he had in the previous 11 games combined. Thompson and Tres Tinkle have 16 steals combined in those four games.
“It looks like guys flying around, talking, one guy makes a mistake and the next guy closest to him is going to cover for him,” Eubanks said of what the team desires to be on defense.
Watching film of the Oregon game, Eubanks said there were many defensive possessions as he described.
Coach Tinkle acknowledges his team’s progress but also that there’s room to grow.
The Beavers’ continuing struggles on the perimeter will be taken advantage of by Arizona if not quickly shored up.
Communication, active feet and understanding of positions in the zone defense have been key in conference play.
“That can all be well and understood, but if they don’t have the focus and the intensity then it’s going to break down at some point,” coach Tinkle said. “I think that’s probably the number-one key, is guys are much more locked in and playing harder. When you play hard you can make up for mistakes, and we weren’t doing that early on.”