EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - Along with the No. 1 ranking comes expectation.
So when the new RPI was released and Oregon State sat at the top of the (inherently flawed) standings, it would only make sense that with it came a chance in attitude for the Beavers.
“That number, that’s turning out to be the bane of my existence here,” Oregon State head coach Craig Robinson said with a chuckle after the game.
And while its unrealistic to think that Oregon State is the best team in the country, there are expectations for this team this season. Not just from the media -- those pesky, little so-called experts -- and the fan base, but from within the program as well. The Beavers expect to win this year. For a team that finished 10-19 last season and has gone just 42-57 in Robinson’s three-year tenure at the school, that’s one of the biggest hurdles the Beavers will have to clear, simply believing they are going to win.
“When I started the season this year I said I like this team,” Robinson said. “I like this team. And now you can see why. This is a tough group of kids. They just kept fighting, just kept fighting, and didn’t give up.”
Perhaps the biggest reason for Oregon State’s early season success has been the play of star Jared Cunningham. A 6'4" shooting guard, Cunningham is one of the best defenders in the country. He routinely guards the best opposing perimeter player and is notorious in the Pac-12 for his toughness and effort level. Cunningham’s collar is as blue as it gets. He has no problem mixing it up in the paint or diving on the floor for a loose ball.
But he’s never had that issue, either. Where his game has really developed on the offensive end of the floor, where Cunningham is getting awfully close to having to be labeled a superstar. In Oregon State’s 100-95 overtime win against Texas in the Legends Classic semifinals, Cunningham finished with 37 points and nine rebounds. This performance came just one game after Cunningham went for 35 points against Hofstra. On the season, he’s now averaging 26.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 2.3 spg.
“He does everything for us,” Robinson said. “He guards the best guy. He scores points. He makes assists. He makes his foul shots. The magnitude of what he had to do today, on this stage and in this tournament against this team, is big time. And it’s getting to be a regular thing with Jared.”
The difference is that Cunningham is beginning to show the signs of being a finisher. Against Texas, he made every big play down the stretch. He had seven points and an assist -- and the most important play of the game, stripping J’Covan Brown after he had corralled a long offensive rebound with 30 seconds left and Texas leading 80-78 -- in the last three minutes of regulation and added eight more points in overtime.
“I feel like I can be that decision maker in the end,” Cunningham said. “That comes with confidence, and that comes with a lot of pressure on your shoulders, but I feel like I can take it on.”
Cunningham is a freak athlete. When he wants to get to the rim, no one is stopping him. He shot 23 free throws on Friday night and made 20 of them. What Cunningham is still learning to do is how to be a basketball player. Everyone in the country has seen the dunk that he had against Arizona last season, but simply being able to make a play like that isn’t going to make Cunningham a star anywhere other than Sportscenter’s top ten.
What he needs to do is become a better shot creator and a better shot maker. He needs to not only be able to put the ball on the floor and draw a foul, he has to turn that into an and-one instead of just two shots. He needs to shoot better than 4-15 from beyond the arc. He needs to improve his handle and avoid turnovers. That takes time, and while Cunningham has absolutely improved in those areas, he still has so much room to grow.
And he just scored 72 points in back-to-back games. Think about that.
“Jared has evolved as a player since I saw him when he was a sophomore (in high school) and I was at Brown and trying to recruit him before he blew up,” Robinson said. “He has just come a long way. The reason is because he is extremely receptive to coaching. He wants to get better and what you saw out there was a culmination of his hard work.”
“We get to see it all the time out west.”
Oregon State is much improved as a team this year, and its not only the play of Cunningham. Devon Collier, Eric Moreland, Angus Brandt and Joe Burton form an intriguing front line. Ahmad Starks and Roberto Nelson both knocked down some big shots tonight despite not playing their best game. This is a team with some potential that is playing much better as a single unit this season, but its the talent of Cunningham that drives this train. He’s the engine that will determine how far this group goes.
He’s a tough kid, one that’s going to do whatever he can to help his team win.
Even if its at the risk of his future as model.
“Jared is a handsome guy and he’s always worried about his looks so I was more worried about that,” Robinson said when asked about the elbow that Cunningham caught in the overtime that split open his lip. “I wasn’t worried about him coming out of the game. He is a warrior. He looks slight but he is wiry strong and he’s a huge competitor so he wasn’t coming out of the game.”
“I saw the blood and was a little worried,” Cunningham said, “because I didn’t want it to get on my jersey because I wasn’t coming out. I stayed out on the court and was able to make some big plays.”