It doesn’t take much, Craig Robinson has learned.
For an Oregon State team that hasn’t advanced to the NCAA tournament in 24 years, a team that hasn’t had a coach end his tenure with a winning record since Ralph Miller from 1971-89, a team whose biggest (only?) success in two-plus decades has been then 2009 College Basketball Invitational championship — even a modicum of success has been received with wide eyes and open arms.
The Beavers’ recent two-game sweep of USC and UCLA put them above .500 to conclude the first half of conference play for the first time in 15 years. Even a 76-72 overtime loss to Arizona State on Thursday can’t take away the glory of that one small step.
“They understand now the historical ramifications of being in this place,” Robinson said. “I keep telling them it’s an important game, but until they hear Oregon State hasn’t been in this position, they think, ‘I was 6 or 5 years old last time this happened.’ They’re coming to grips with that part of it.”
That they have to come to grips with just being above .500 in conference play tells the whole story, doesn’t it?
This Beavers squad is vastly different from the one Robinson inherited in 2008, when he took the reins of a team that had gone 6-25 and was winless in conference play.
This is a team capable of beating UCLA and in-state rival Oregon and Stanford and winning at Maryland. With the conference’s leading scorer in Roberto Nelson and a veteran-laden lineup, the Beavers are simply better than their history. Better yet, they’re starting to know that.
“I’d like to think we always thought we could play with any team in the conference, but that hasn’t been the case in the past,” Robinson said. “Actually getting over the hump of winning these games is really helping these guys realize they should be and can be competitive at the top of the league. You play a team like UCLA — I think that’s a really good team. They didn’t play well against us, but that makes you think you can be right up there.”
The defeat of the Bruins served as a benchmark for Robinson, who finally has the horses — the experienced horses — to contend with the Pac-12’s glamour teams. The Beavers held UCLA to 39-percent shooting in that Feb. 2 matchup, and 29 percent from three-point range. Oregon State limited the Bruins’ leading scorer, Jordan Adams, to six points — all on free throws — and 0-for-9 shooting.
“Our defense is better than it’s ever been, and that’s a big reason why we’re playing better,” Robinson said. “But it’s not where we want it to be, and there are times we have some lulls that end up costing us sometimes.”
The Beavers aren’t perfect, to be sure, as was evidenced in a season-opening, five-point loss to Coppin State and in a recent 11-point defeat at Utah.
But they’re getting there, and that’s enough for Robinson.
“We just have a sense of urgency about us,” he said. “It’s interesting to see. Once you have some experience winning these games, you want to win more. It becomes easier to win these games. Watching my guys prepare each week has been really impressive from a coaching standpoint.”
It’s easier to prepare with the kind of experience the Beavers have.
In addition to Nelson, a senior who has increased his scoring average every season, Oregon State counts seniors Devon Collier and Angus Brandt as major contributors, along with junior Eric Moreland. Brandt is a microcosm of the team’s success, having rebounded from a torn ACL that cost him his 2012-13 season to average 12.6 points per game on 53-percent shooting.
“Where he’s shown the most strides has been psychologically,” Robinson said. “When you have a devastating injury like that, psychologically getting back to where you were pre-surgery is hard to do. He’s made that journey. Now you’re starting to see the guy who we saw prior to the surgery. Having him in the lineup is the difference between us playing really well and not playing well.”