Greg Hansen: Despite record, Beavers on rise

2012-01-13T00:01:00Z Greg Hansen: Despite record, Beavers on riseGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 13, 2012 12:01 am  • 

For the first time in 20 years, you didn't need to be Oregon State's radio guy to know the names of the Beavers and their coach.

Their record isn't much different than it has been for two decades, 1-4 in the Pac-12, but this time when Arizona beat OSU at McKale Center it was because the Wildcats had been kissed by some good fortune and, frankly, because Ahmad Starks missed a game-winning shot that 14,142 people in McKale feared would set off an all-Orange celebration.

The Pac-12 gets a lot of grief for being a conference without a killer team, or even one that can be labeled a favorite, but the Beavers are good and on their way to being really good.

Let's put it this way: Arizona is fortunate there won't be a return game in Corvallis this season.

Arizona won 81-73 in overtime Thursday night, but you don't have to be Dick Vitale to see that the Beavers have as many good players as Arizona, or more, and that OSU's future is as promising as any in this league.

"We didn't even play our best game, and we were right there with 'em," said OSU coach Craig Robinson. "That's where we are at this stage of our development. We need to figure out how to win these games."

Arizona has been winning these games - here, there and anywhere - since 1985, and especially against the Beavers. But in this transition year, learning how to play without Derrick Williams and without an inside presence, the Wildcats are uncommonly vulnerable. They are learning to win with guts, toughness and resilience, and Thursday's game required all three.

"So much of it comes down to being able to finish," said UA coach Sean Miller. "We're going to be in these hard-fought games for the rest of the year."

Since Arizona's Lute Olson replaced OSU's Ralph Miller and the Beavers as the West's leading basketball program 25 years ago, the Wildcats and Beavers have had nothing in common. Now they run side by side. You can even say that Oregon State is a step ahead of the Wildcats, with more size and experience, although Arizona's recruiting class of 2012 is apt to change things a bit.

"They have an influx of talent," said Miller. "Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program, and Oregon State is doing an excellent job of it. Fast-forward to a year from now, and you can see them as one of the teams to beat."

What I'm trying to get at is that beating Oregon State has become something of an ordeal; not many Pac-12 teams are going to beat the Beavers the rest of the way. The UA's victory Thursday night is a signal that Miller's team has as good a chance as anybody to go 12-6 in the Pac-12.

If you go 12-6, you might be a trichamp or something.

Three times while standing in a corridor at McKale, Robinson referred to his team's "change in culture." He has already beaten Arizona three times (including a 2010 game that snapped a 27-year losing streak in Tucson) and with Starks, junior wing Jared Cunningham and a brigade of returning big guys, including Eric Moreland and Devon Collier, it's understandable.

"We're a couple of steps away from winning a game like this," Robinson said. "We're in good shape now, but we're not in great shape."

Robinson's first three OSU teams would come to Tucson, set up in a stodgy 1-3-1 zone defense and kill the clock. It covered for their personnel deficiencies. This year, by comparison, they are sleek and ready to run. Who wouldn't want to have a backcourt of Cunningham and Starks? Is it the Pac-12's best starting backcourt?

It's close.

The difference between the Wildcats and Beavers on Thursday was that Arizona long ago recruited Brendon Lavender from Phoenix Mountain View High School. It was so long ago, November 2007, that Lavender was signed by Kevin O'Neill.

Lavender now is the type of spare part - I mean that in a good way - that Arizona has had almost to excess for 25 years. Had he transferred to get more playing time the way so many former high school stars do, there would be a gaping hole on Miller's bench, and the Wildcats would've lost to the Beavers.

Robinson hasn't yet had enough time to recruit, develop and deploy a ninth-man like Lavender.

At halftime Thursday, Robinson was annoyed that the aggressive Cunningham, who entered the game with 139 free throws - that was 67 more than UA leader Solomon Hill - had not been to the foul line.

Robinson motioned to official Michael Irving and said, "That kid might be the No. 1 player in the league, and he can't get to the foul line."

So yes, the game has changed. The No. 1 player in this league hasn't belonged to Oregon State since Gary Payton departed 22 years ago. And whenever OSU has played Arizona, the No. 1 player has always been dressed in red or blue.

Appreciate and savor Thursday's victory. Beating Oregon State is now reason to go home with a sense of accomplishment.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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