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Why Oregon State was picked last in the Pac-12 ... and is still playing
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Why Oregon State was picked last in the Pac-12 ... and is still playing

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One of the more popular storylines about the Pac-12's undefeated performance in the NCAA Tournament so far is that Oregon State was picked to finish last in the league.

While I was one of the many voters who put the Beavers there (I'm all for accountability in voting), OSU actually finished in a tie for sixth, and there were reasons to think the Beavers would finish lower than that back in early November.

One of those reasons had nothing to do with OSU -- it was that Washington State and Cal had shown immediate promise under first-year coaches in 2019-20 and had strong cores of returning players, while Washington was expected to be better with point guard Quade Green eligible after its first-to-worst flip.

The Beavers themselves were hard to figure. Always somewhat unpredictable with their wide array of defenses, they had lost two of their top three scorers from an 18-13 team last season: Coach Wayne Tinkle's standout son, Tres, and shot-blocking whiz Kylor Kelley.

OSU returned guard Ethan Thompson back from the NBA Draft pool but little other proven talent: Zach Reichle had played well against Arizona in Corvallis but still averaged less than eight points, while sharpshooter Jarod Lucas averaged 4.6 points and shot 34.3% from 3. (Lucas now averages 13.0 points and shoots 39.0% from 3).

While center Roman Silva's offensive rebounding percentage (8.9) last season was a hint of what was to come, he still averaged only 1.9 points and 1.2 rebounds last season, hardly visible behind Kelley. Now those numbers are roughly tripled, while Silva's 7-foot-1 frame provides a unique presence around the basket.

Many of the new guys were junior college transfers who typically take much of a season to adjust to Division I, if at all: Rodrique Andela, Maurice Calloo, and Tariq Silver. Yet all three of them have played key roles in the Beavers' rotation.

Then, maybe most important to OSU's rise beyond expectations is the case of Warith Alatishe, who has become the Beavers' leading rebounder and third-leading scorer (9.5 ppg, 8.6 rpg).

A transfer from Nicholls State who had promise -- Tinkle said last fall he was "just scratching the surface” of his skill level -- Alatishe wasn't even eligible to play until he received a waiver to do so on Nov. 20, well after preseason voting was in.

And nobody knows better than Arizona that the Beavers took a while to get going once the season began: The Wildcats beat OSU by 34 points on Jan. 14 in Corvallis and -- while that game came directly after the Beavers' COVID pause -- UA also beat OSU 70-61 on Feb. 11 at McKale Center.

As late as Feb. 15, after the Beavers lost at ASU, they were alone in eighth place in the Pac-12. They finished in a tie for sixth at 10-10, but earned the tiebreaker over Stanford because they had beaten Oregon -- and, thanks to Arizona, took over the No. 5 seed and first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament ...  when they went on a roll that hasn't stopped.

Since it's now becoming clear that the Pac-12 might have been better than everyone realized -- meaning a team that was picked last in that conference, but came together late in the season against its strong competition -- maybe really isn't that much of a surprise to make an NCAA Tournament run.

"We’re obviously putting everybody on notice. I’m very happy for our program, but I’m extremely happy for the Pac-12 conference,” Tinkle said after OSU beat Oklahoma State to reach the Sweet 16, according to the Oregonian. “Maybe now we’ll get some damn respect."

Meanwhile, Oregon clobbered Iowa on Monday in what has been termed an upset. Was it? Oregon stayed under the national radar all season because it had two COVID pauses and, even after it won 10 of its final 11 regular-season games to win the Pac-12 regular-season title, the Ducks remained unranked.

But certainly at least, Arizona knows what kind of matchup headaches the Ducks can cause.

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