Progress has been made and Oregon State is certainly better off than it was a year ago at this time.
But ready or not, the Pac-12 men’s basketball schedule opens this week for a Beavers squad still chasing a complete-game effort.
OSU (8-4) hosts Colorado (8-4) at 8 p.m. Friday in the conference opener for both teams. Utah (8-3) comes to Gill Coliseum for a 3 p.m. Sunday game.
The Beavers enter league play coming off arguably their poorest performance of the season in a Dec. 21 loss at Kent State, which followed the program’s first six-game winning streak in 13 years.
“We’ve done some good things and obviously some things we’ve got to continue to work on,” coach Wayne Tinkle said earlier this week. “We’ve had a couple curveballs thrown at us, but all in all we’ve played some really good minutes of ball.”
Those “curveballs” include the departure of sophomore guard JaQuori McLaughlin from the program earlier this month for personal reasons and a lower-leg injury to junior center Gligorije Rakocevic that will keep the big man out for an undetermined amount of time.
But the season continues on, and the Beavers keep working to become a better defensive team, believing improved play on that end is the biggest answer to more success.
“We’re confident, but we’ve got to realize the Pac is completely different from preseason,” said junior forward Drew Eubanks, noting that even the best nonconference teams OSU played would be near the bottom of the Pac-12 standings.
Eubanks added that he believes his team can beat any other in conference but needs to play a full 40 minutes to accomplish that.
The Beavers enter the league portion of the season second in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing 70.2 points per game, and second in steals (6.9).
Opponents are shooting a combined 42.2 percent. But in losses, Oregon State has struggled to get stops when it needed them.
The Beavers have held opponents under 40 percent shooting in a half nine times this season. Eight times that’s been in the first half.
They’ve been outscored in the second half of all four of their losses. Four of six times that an opponent has shot 50 percent or better in a half it’s come after halftime.
“I think at times we’re being a little bit tentative when the games are close offensively,” said junior guard Stevie Thompson. “Then defensively, we haven’t been doing a good job of guarding the 3-point line or keeping guys in front of us. We have to be able to do at least one of those things in order to give ourselves a chance to win in conference play.”
On offense, coach Tinkle says, “we’ve got to cut harder, screen harder, take care of the ball like we were early on. And we hope by doing that it will take a little pressure off the shooting, because we’ve got to shoot it better from 3.”
Oregon State is shooting 29.9 percent on 3-pointers, 12th in the conference and 319th of 351 NCAA Division I teams. The Beavers had 19 turnovers against Kent State, their second-highest total of the season.
Rakocevic, an impact player on both ends, is doubtful for the weekend with a right calf muscle injury. The 6-foot-11, 255-pound Rakocevic suffered the injury against Saint Louis on Dec. 16 in Portland. He missed the Kent State game.
“We’re not the most physical team, but when he’s out it really takes something away from us,” Tinkle said, also noting Rakocevic’s leadership.
“We’re going to play smaller at times because we can’t play Drew 40 minutes. When we take him out we’re going to have Seth (Berger), Ben (Kone) or Tres (Tinkle) playing the 5 (center). We’re going to have to play a little different style offensively.”
Rakocevic has averaged only 10.6 minutes per game but was expected to play more in conference because of his experience.
“It takes away the ability to play big with he and Drew,” coach Tinkle said, “so hopefully we can get him back to 100 percent and back to the court before long.”
Against Kent State, Berger played 19 minutes, his most in the last four games and second-highest total of the season. Kone played four minutes, his second most in three games back from a knee injury. Tres Tinkle played 39, equaling his season high.
Tres Tinkle said he feels good about the team’s improvement while acknowledging a few losses he felt should have been wins.
“We know we’ve got to focus and buy in a lot more now because the competition raises every single game,” he said. “A much different caliber of talent, so we’ve got to be much more focused.”