Column: Inside OSU basketball... Starks’ defense, dunking, freshman rotation, etc.
Published: Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 03:11
The Oregon State men’s basketball team did exactly what it was supposed to do this past weekend: Start the regular season off with a pair of wins.
The Beavers defeated Niagara 102-83 Friday and topped New Mexico State 71-62 Sunday.
Before turning our attention toward Thursday night’s game against Alabama at Madison Square Garden in New York City, let’s rehash the weekend happenings.
• Don’t undersell the significance of Sunday’s win over New Mexico State.
The casual basketball fan probably chalked it up as a walk-in-the-park win over another nonconference opponent they’d never heard of, but the Aggies aren’t slouches.
They returned two starters and four of their top-eight players — including 2012-13 preseason All-WAC guard Daniel Mullings — off last year’s NCAA Tournament team, and were picked by the coaches to win the Western Athletic Conference this season.
Outside of OSU’s three neutral-site games against schools from major conferences — Thursday against Alabama, Friday against Villanova or Purdue and Nov. 30 against No. 7 Kansas — you could make the argument that Sunday was the Beavers’ toughest nonconference game on the schedule.
Yes, it was a game OSU was supposed to win — the Beavers were 8 1/2-point favorites — but it was also the type of game we’ve seen OSU occasionally lose in the past.
• In last Friday’s Barometer, men’s basketball beat reporter Alex Crawford and I revealed our picks for the Beavers’ most valuable player and X-Factor this season.
Because this year’s team doesn’t have a bona fide superstar like last year’s team did, our picks were all over the map.
I went with senior center Angus Brandt for MVP and junior guard Roberto Nelson for X-Factor. Crawford went with junior forward Devon Collier for MVP and sophomore forward Eric Moreland for X-Factor.
Our apologies, Ahmad Starks.
Through two games, the 5-foot-9 junior guard from Chicago has been OSU’s best player.
Friday, Starks scored 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting from behind the arc.
Sunday, he played — without question — his best all-around game as a Beaver, finishing with 33 points (on 11-of-21 shooting), five rebounds, five assists and four steals.
Thirty-three points speaks for itself — Jared Cunningham was the only Beaver to eclipse 30 points in a game last season, doing it three times — and everyone knows Starks is a capable scorer, so I’ll focus on other aspects of his game which impressed me.
Most notably, his tenacious on-the-ball defense and his leadership.
Starks’ defense may go unnoticed by many — because of his stature, it’d be fair to (wrongly) assume he’s a defensive liability — but it doesn’t go unnoticed by teammates and coaches.
“It isn’t a surprise to anybody who’s been at practice every day and knows how he’s been doing,” said head coach Craig Robinson on Sunday. “Watching him guard those guards [Sunday] didn’t surprise me at all. What surprised me was he was extremely vocal for the quiet leader that we’ve come to know him. We need him to be that kind of vocal leader.”
Starks also played the role of distributor early, dishing out all five of his assists in the first half. His career-high is six assists.
Starks certainly isn’t going to average 25.5 points per game and shoot 44.4 percent from three-point territory all season, but if he can continue to defend, provide leadership and distribute the basketball, he’ll be as valuable as any Beaver, whether his shots are falling or not.
• Speaking of Starks, did you know he can dunk?
I didn’t, and I told Starks if he had finished a breakaway (which followed a three-pointer by him) late in the first half of Sunday’s game with a one- or two-handed slam, the roof would have come off Gill Coliseum.
Starks then said he can in fact dunk, and that he thought about throwing it down, but decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
Good thing, because Robinson wouldn’t have been happy.
“I’m glad he didn’t risk it, because I would have really been upset with him on that,” Robinson said. “But listen, he doesn’t have to dunk in a game. I’ll vouch for him, I’ve seen him dunk twice.”
So there you have it.
• While Starks was the story of the weekend, there were several other impressive individual efforts.
Nelson — the player I’m keeping my eye on the most this season — was fantastic Friday, leading the Beavers with a game-high 22 points. Nelson’s season-high last year was 21, so the whole “you’re going to see a different Roberto Nelson” thing already has some merit to it. Nelson forced the issue a bit too much Sunday, finishing 3-of-10 from the field, but all in all it was a solid start to the season for Beavers’ lone new starter.
Brandt, who looked much more confident and assertive than he’s looked in the past, scored 26 points on 11-of-21 shooting and added 14 rebounds in the two games combined. I expect steady production from the senior all season long. Ditto for senior forward Joe Burton, who had 10 points Friday and 13 points Sunday.
Foul trouble plagued Collier Sunday and led to the worst statistical game of his career — zero points, one rebound — but he seemed to embrace his sixth-man role Friday, scoring 14 points and grabbing seven boards.
Like Collier, Moreland — who Robinson has used the word “matured” when talking about him at least 10 times already this season — was exceptional Friday (14 points, 13 boards, five blocks) but didn’t find a groove Sunday.
Basically, all six of the Beavers’ top players showed what they’re capable of at least once over the weekend.
• If you were curious which of the four true freshmen Robinson is most comfortable putting in a game, you may have gotten your answer Sunday when 6-foot-7 forward Jarmal Reid received 16 minutes of playing time.