Worden: Rising to the tournament

Josh Worden Senior Beat Reporter

The escalator continues for Oregon State.

The OSU men’s basketball team (18-11, 9-9 Pac-12) is on the way up after an 86-82 win over UCLA on the road Saturday. The Beavers’ first NCAA Tournament berth in 26 years is within reach, and OSU might already make the field of 68 no matter what happens in the 8:30 p.m. Wednesday matchup with Arizona State to open the Pac-12 Tournament.

It’s nice to think the Beavers may already be in, but let’s not be too quick to assume that making the NCAA Tournament is the only important thing. If it was, OSU could probably lose to ASU, lose the first game of the NCAA Tournament and go home happy.

But if OSU can’t win on Wednesday night versus the Sun Devils, do the Beavers even deserve to make the NCAA Tournament?

Wednesday’s game is in a neutral site, just like the NCAA Tournament will be. It’s against ASU, which owns the conference’s second-to-worst record of 5-13 with losses in five of the last six contests. OSU could avenge its 86-68 loss in Tempe earlier this season, the largest margin of victory for ASU and biggest margin of defeat for OSU in any conference game this year.

OSU has done enough the the rest of the year to warrant tournament consideration regardless of Wednesday’s outcome, but a loss could cripple both OSU’s tournament chances and momentum heading into the postseason.

The good sign for the Beavers is that coaches and players have been saying everything right. Freshman guard Stephen Thompson, Jr. talked about needing to beat ASU to “establish” OSU’s resume, senior guard Gary Payton II noted there’s “definitely more work ahead” and senior forward Olaf Schaftenaar wanted to “secure” his team’s chances. For head coach Wayne Tinkle, the signature phrase was “leave no doubt.”

“We’re going to take the approach that we’re not (in the tournament) until we take care of business this week,” he said. “We want to make sure that we leave no doubt.”

Tinkle also brought up a good point: the Pac-12 Tournament champion gets an automatic ticket to the NCAA Tournament, meaning if a team like ASU that wouldn’t make the NCAA Tournament otherwise ends up winning the Pac-12 Tournament, it throws at-large bids all out of order. Suddenly, a bubble team like OSU might have its position thwarted by the Sun Devils, who could sidestep OSU into the bracket.

Of course, OSU could simply beat ASU on Wednesday and this whole ordeal would be a lot easier. The Beavers haven’t won a game in the Pac-12 Tournament since 2012, but this win would not only solidify OSU’s chances on Selection Sunday but also prove the Beavers are good enough to win critical games away from Corvallis.

“I think that would be the final deal on our resume to get in,” coach Tinkle said. “It would mean everything to us.”

There will be difficulties, such as the likely absence of injured freshman forward Tres Tinkle. But if the Beavers defeated UCLA in Los Angeles on Saturday, they can defeat ASU in Las Vegas on Wednesday. In my eyes, they need to.

Even if OSU loses but makes the NCAA Tournament, it wouldn’t be good for a team to stumble into March Madness by going 0-2 this season to a paltry ASU team — sorry, Michael Phelps, no celebrity appearance can distract from how mediocre the Sun Devils are this year.

For an OSU team on the brink of creating and recreating history: do yourselves a favor as you rise to new heights this year as if you’re on an escalator to greatness.

Don’t get your shoelaces caught on the way up.

On Twitter @BrightTies