By Jon Rothstein
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Jared Cunningham was the best player in college basketball last season that nobody knew about.
The 6-foot-4 guard made highlight reel plays with regularity and routinely put Oregon State on his back. Cunningham would have been a national story if he played in a more mainstream program but due to the Beavers’ location, he was more mystery than anything else — until the NBA Draft.
The Dallas Mavericks took Cunningham in the first round with the 24th overall pick, a huge feat considering how few people knew about his game. Cunningham’s surge was a huge coup for the Oregon State program but it now raises questions about how the Beavers will be next year without their best player from the previous season.
“If Jared came back to school, we really thought we could be a legitimate Top 25 team,” Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said recently. “We know it’s going to be tough to replace Jared’s scoring and defense but everyone in our program is stepping up in off season workouts. We’ll go by committee more but we’ll still be a good team.”
The good news for the Beavers is that despite losing Cunningham, everyone else of significance returns from a team that won 21 games and finished eighth in the PAC-12 last season.
Jersey City native Devon Collier is the likely candidate to be Oregon State’s leading scorer after averaging 13.1 points per game as a sophomore. The 6-foot-7 lefty forward is a crafty finisher around the rim and has a better face up game that people realize.
“He’s going to play a big part in our low post scoring,” Robinson said of Collier.
Oregon State’s perimeter is also battle tested. The Beavers return veteran point guard Ahmad Starks as well as swing man Roberto Nelson. Sophomore Challe Barton figures also to have an expanded role with Cunningham’s departure and should have an opportunity to refine his skills as he plays with the Swedish National Team this summer.
“That troika will surprise a lot of people in our league,” Robinson said of Starks, Nelson, and Barton. “Challe’s playing time is going to increase and he’s going to be an integral part of what we do. Ahmad (Starks) won a lot of games for us last year. He’s the type of point guard who score the ball but also can also get people involved.”
Nelson’s growth will be paramount if Oregon State is to have a chance to climb into the top half of the PAC-12 standings. The 6-3 guard has all the tools to be a solid perimeter scorer and should improve on his average of 9.3 points per game with expanded minutes.
“He didn’t realize how hard you have to work at his level,” Robinson said of Nelson. “He’s got the ability, there’s no doubt about that.”
Robinson also brought in three freshmen wings to help replace Cunningham’s production in Jarmal Reid, Victor Robbins, and Langston Morris-Walker, all of who figure to be in the mix for reserve minutes off the bench.
Angus Brandt, Joe Burton, and Eric Moreland are three front court veterans that all averaged over 20 minutes per game last season. Robinson is exceptionally high on Brandt, a 6-10 prospect who really augmented his game last year and made 49.2% of his attempts from three point range.
“He’s like a work of art,” Robinson said of Brandt. “He’s rounding out into what we thought he’d be.”
The Beavers won’t have much time for an adjustment period. Robinson will take the team to Europe in the next few weeks on a trip that should really help this group’s chemistry. Oregon State will then head to New York in November for an early season match up against Alabama in the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden. Purdue and Villanova are the other two teams in the event.
Robinson feels the pieces are there for Oregon State to remain competitive again in the PAC-12 but they’ve got to get better at stopping people. During last season, the Beavers allowed over 77 points per game to opponents in conference play.
“We’ve got to be a much better man-to-man team,” Robinson said. “That’s our focus. If we become a better defensive team, we’ll be fine.”
Who do you think will step up for Oregon State? Be heard in the comments below…