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A look at the Pac-12 men’s basketball standings through nonconference play would tell you there’s really no clear-cut favorite, and the scores during the first two months of the season wouldn’t venture too far off that path.

Oregon State, or at least a few of its players, believes the conference is there for the taking this winter.

“The Pac-12’s wide open. We’re right there. Everyone is kind of one game away. A lot of similar records,” said OSU junior forward Tres Tinkle, whose team is 8-4 and wishing it could have turned a few of its losses — all by six points or fewer — into victories. “I like where we’re at. If we can bottle some things up, there’s no reason we can’t have an excellent Pac-12 season.”

Added junior center Kylor Kelley: “In league it’s everyone’s game.”

The Beavers head into Saturday’s conference opener at Oregon (9-4) with a little momentum.

In an 80-59 home win against Central Connecticut last Saturday, they stopped a stretch in which they had lost three of four while largely struggling to shoot well, turned the ball over in large quantities and had problems slowing down opposing 3-point shooters.

OSU saw glimpses of the way it wants to play defense and examples of what has helped the team to success in different periods during coach Wayne Tinkle’s four-plus seasons.

The Beavers had to digest a 66-63 home loss to Kent State over a four-day holiday break, but they were credited with coming back to the court hungry, focused and ready to improve.

Coach Tinkle said last week’s win provided his team a shot in the arm of confidence.

“What it gives them is the ability to sit and watch film and we can get after them, ‘listen, these were the things we talked about for a number of games and we finally addressed them in this game and look what happened,’” the coach said. “It’s always good when you can do that after a win. It sinks in a little bit easier.”

The Central Connecticut game saw the return of senior big man Gligorije Rakocevic, who came off the bench for the first time this season. He played eight minutes after missing the previous five contests with a stress fracture in his left foot.

He said “it felt great” to be back on the court and appreciated the ovation he received from the Gill Coliseum crowd when he entered the game for the first time.

Rakocevic admitted to being a little tired from a lack of stamina during his time away, but he has plans to address that soon.

“Honestly I need to get back in shape now. Knowing that my minutes are limited, I have to take things slowly, especially running, the extra running that we do every day after practice,” he said. “I’m still limited and I’m hoping to start running next week.”

Rakocevic’s return gives the Beavers their only post player with Division I experience coming into the season. He’s lauded for his physical play, rebounding ability and most notably his communication on the backline of the defense.

It came just as, the way coach Tinkle describes it, the price of poker goes up with the start of conference play.

Even in what looks to be another down year in the Pac-12, the coach says his team approaches it the same. Any talk about conference play has centered on the chance to win a few games on the road to make up for losing a few in the nonconference.

“We know that this was going to be a year we felt we could be very competitive in league and nothing has changed,” he said.

When asked what his team needs to improve most to be a contender, coach Tinkle said it’s shooting.

The Beavers are at 46.4 percent overall for the season (fourth in the conference) but just 32.3 percent on 3-pointers (11th).

OSU has two starters – Stevie Thompson and Alfred Hollins – and a key reserve in Zach Reichle all shooting 41.2 percent or below for the season. Reichle is the only regular above 36.4 percent from long range.

“We felt this was going to be a team that could shoot the ball well and we haven’t done that consistently,” coach Tinkle said.

The Beavers are third in the Pac-12 at the free-throw line at 74.2 percent.

Tres Tinkle said creating separation and becoming one of the top teams in the conference will involve discipline and sticking with the game plan.

“Obviously there’s going to be times when shots aren’t going in and we’ve got to get it defensively,” he said. “We’ve always been a team at the top of the Pac-12 in that category.”

Oregon State faces a team in Oregon that is severely shorthanded.

The media’s preseason favorite to win the Pac-12, the Ducks have lost five-star freshman center Bol Bol for the season to a broken foot; sophomore forward Kenny Wooten for an extended period with a broken jaw and won’t play Saturday; and sophomore forward Abu Kigab has apparently decided to transfer.

OSU hasn’t won in Eugene in seven seasons. The Beavers played their closest game in the Wayne Tinkle era there last season, falling 66-57.

“We feel like with the team that we have and the direction we’re going it’s a great opportunity, though we know it’s going to be a real challenge,” the coach said.

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Sports Reporter