Feb 16, 2011

Oregon State

I watch the boys from PTHO play as often as I can. If I can't view their games in real time, I TIVO them and watch them late at night or while I am filling out expense reports (the worst) or executing some other mindless task. I usually enjoy watching them play – even when they aren't performing well – because it still amazes me that the young kids I once knew are now college players.

Lately, I have been obsessively watching Roberto Nelson and Oregon State. I've seen almost all of the Beavers Pac-10 games and I saw the team play in person at Cal and at Stanford. Roberto's dad, Bruce, calls me from prison for updates on how Roberto is doing. I want to give him a comprehensive report, so sometimes I watch Roberto's games live and then re-watch the portions of the game when Roberto was on the floor.

Those who follow me on Twitter know that this has amounted to torture. Oregon State has to be one of the worst major conference teams in the nation. Worst of all, they remind me of one of Joe Keller's team: No discipline, poor fundamentals, a lack of leadership, and a coach on the sideline who doesn't appear to have any answers.

Criticizing the tactics of coaches can be tricky because, well, I am not a coach. In PTHO, I did so only when I felt like it was SO obvious that what Keller was doing was wrong. I don't know as much about basketball as Oregon State coach Craig Robinson. I don't know all of his players like I know Roberto. I don't know what kind of effort they give in practice and who is teachable and who is not. Still, it has become obvious to me that the team is doing a lot wrong. For example:

1. The Beavers play a gimmicky zone - a lot of 1-3-1 and others - that is too easily exploited by disciplined teams. The players run around crazily trying to create turnovers and it just leads to easy buckets. Oregon State has a number of great athletes who, on the surface, look like they would be good one-on-one defenders, and yet night after night Oregon State sticks with that zone, which has resulted in the worst field-goal percentage defense in the Pac-10. It reminds me of Keller's stupid "Fist" defense, and readers will remember that it wasn't until Keller abandoned that zone that the team found real success.

2. Oregon State should run but does not. Oregon State has some supreme athletes, such as Jared Cunningham, Calvin Haynes, Devon Collier, Roberto, etc. but it plays a version of the Princeton offense (I'm told) that is ill suited to its personnel. To my untrained eye, the Beavers entire offensive philosophy consists of passing the ball around the perimeter until one of those great athletes says "to hell with it" and takes a low percentage shot.

3. Nobody rebounds. This may be because of the aforementioned zone, as it makes it harder for players to find a man and box out. Among Pac-10 schools, Oregon State ranks last in defensive rebounding.

4. Nobody can shoot the 3. As a team, Oregon State shoots about 29% from three-point range. That's not a typo. Part of the problem is the high number of players (like Cunningham, Haynes, etc) who are better penetrators than shooters, but the offense also doesn't create enough open looks because . . .

5. Nobody passes. This may be what bothers me most. I watch Notre Dame play a lot, and the difference between how the Notre Dame players share the ball and what Oregon State does is the difference between Steve Nash and J.R. Smith. Oregon State has a roster full of selfish players. I first watched Haynes, a senior guard, play at the Adidas Superstar Camp when he was going into his final year of high school. I remember thinking then that he was chucker, and I would never want him on my team. More than four years later, my opinion remains unchanged. Haynes is not the only guilty party, but he personifies the problem. Why did UCLA rack up an astounding 16 blocks Saturday against the Beavers? Because no Oregon State player ever drove and dished. They always took the shot, no matter how bad it was, so UCLA's frontline could play for the block without concern for leaving their man.

Oregon State's mistakes and mediocrity shouldn't bother me as much as it does. What do I care if the Beavers suck? Well, here is why: Before he went to Oregon State, Roberto was a good shooter, a great passer, a very good rebounder for a guard, and a solid one-on-one defender. Most importantly, he was consummate team player. If you don't believe me, go back and reread the chapters that focus on him.

Late in the second half of Oregon State's embarrassing showing against UCLA, Roberto was just looking for his shot, not caring about his teammates. It appeared as if he had caught whatever disease Calvin Haynes has had since high school. He may have been the last holdout among the Beavers most talented players; the others turned into me-first kids even earlier. Now, even Roberto had succumbed. This is what happens on bad, undisciplined teams. It becomes every man for himself, every player trying to show what he can do. We are going to lose anyway, the players think, so I might as well get my shots. 

It hurts to see Roberto playing that way. That is not who he is. We have talked about it, and he is frustrated and unhappy, mostly with the losing. He wants to help his team win, but he knows that if he goes out there and plays one way and all his teammates are playing another, it is not going to make a difference.

So, what's the solution? I don't know. I see SO much that needs to change, beginning with Robinson's core strategic philosophies: that zone and the Princeton-ish offense. Coaches can adapt, but most have a way of doing things and tend to deviate only slightly. Tweaks aren't going to fix Oregon State.

As the risk of exposing my basketball ignorance, here are a couple of overly simplistic suggestions:

1. Play man-to-man defense. If the zone(s) you are playing has made you the worst defensive team (%-wise) in the conference, time to try something else. Show the team tape of Oregon State alumnus Gary Payton playing and say, "Do that!"

2. Get the younger players (Cunningham, Collier, Roberto, etc.) on the floor together more often and give them a long leash. Sit Haynes and Omari Johnson. As seniors, they are not going to be part of any turnaround and they take minutes from those who might be. Please sit Haynes. Please. Please. Please. I will buy a copy of Robinson's book to go with the one copy I already own for every game the rest of the year in which Haynes logs less than 15 minutes on the floor.

3. Run, Craig, run. Encourage those young players to pick up the pace. How any coach could not let Cunningham get out and run is beyond me. He's one of the top 10 athletes and finishers at the rim in the nation. Roberto should have 10 assists a night playing next to Cunningham.
I know, I know, I sound like a frustrated parent. I want Roberto to play more and all of those suggestions would benefit him. But I just don't see any other way for Oregon State to create a sliver of hope for the future and to make their remaining games remotely watchable. Time to do something drastic.