OSU is a different team this year, and coach Tinkle is working out the kinks

Josh Worden, Senior Beat Reporter

Wayne Tinkle is facing a different beast this season.

The head coach of the Oregon State men’s basketball team is in his third year in Corvallis, and the 2016-2017 season— compared to last year and the team’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 1990—already has its fair share of volatility.

OSU started 2-0, then dropped four straight games, including a home loss to Lamar despite being favored by 22. The Beavers went five games without sophomore guard Stephen Thompson Jr. due to a foot injury and still are without freshman forward Ben Koné, who is recovering from a torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament from January. Junior forward Keondre Dew also sat out two games due to suspension.

Most notably, sophomore forward Tres Tinkle broke his wrist in the closing minutes of OSU’s fourth straight loss against Fresno State on Nov. 25. Tres and his averages of 20.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game are expected to miss about three more weeks.

Plus, there’s no more Gary Payton II, last year’s star player who graduated along with four other seniors, and junior guard Malcolm Duvivier is taking this season off for personal reasons.

OSU is now 3-6 this season after a 69-66 loss at Charlotte on Saturday, a game OSU came in as 6.5-point underdogs but hung with the 49ers on the road until the final buzzer.

So there’s the landscape for Tinkle, injuries and all. What will he do with this 2016-2017 team to continue OSU’s progress as a program? After all, last year’s squad earned a spot in March Madness. This year, however, is not the same.

With the losses of Payton II, Duvivier and others, Tinkle notes, OSU’s inexperience will cause some bumps in the road. The Beavers have a lot of first year players earning big minutes, especially at the guard position. When Thompson Jr. was out, there wasn’t a single healthy guard on the roster who played for OSU last year: JaQuori McLaughlin is a true freshman, Kendal Manuel is a redshirt freshman, juniors Ronnie Stacy and Daine Mueller are transfers and sophomore Tanner Sanders was on the baseball team last year.

“We talked about being an immature and relatively inexperienced group—they’ve got to learn how to take they way our staff coaches,” Tinkle said. “There’s times where we’re trying to send a message, there’s times we’re trying to see if the light is on up there, there’s times we’re just trying to get them going, get a reaction. This isn’t cupcake basketball in the PAC-12, and our guys are learning how to deal and respond to that. It shouldn’t scare anyone into not allowing them to play their game, it should fire them up.”

Tinkle made similar statements about his team the last two years. It’s not uncommon, after all, for 18 and 19-year-old freshman to arrive at college and struggle to handle the tougher coaching, harder workouts and increased competition for playing time. Tinkle says players are meshing pretty well off the court, though.

“The one thing that stands out is our overall team chemistry is pretty good,” Tinkle said. “At times because we have a lot of young guys and fresh egos, things can crop up. But overall, they’ve got each other’s backs and they enjoy being around each other. It wasn’t divided in years past, but you had the little groups. But these guys all enjoy hanging out with each other, and that’s nice to see.”

“I feel like this year is going to be more of a team effort than last year,” added sophomore forward Drew Eubanks. “Obviously last year we had Gary, and he covered up a lot of things that we didn’t do well as a team, but this year we have a lot of young guys. We have a lot of talent, too, but we have to figure out how to put it together.”

As for the post players, Eubanks has solidified a big role in OSU’s front court. He’s already made a leap from last year, when he became the first OSU true freshman to start a season opener since 2006. This season, he’s again commanded a massive role in OSU’s front court; besides Tres, no teammate has half as many rebounds as his 77 this year and he’s averaging 13.0 points per game, also tops on the team outside of Tres. As Gottlieb points out, Eubanks’ work ethic in the offseason has prepared him for the task of handling a big step forward in responsibility on both sides of the court.

“Drew has improved tremendously. I think for any kid, you usually make your biggest jump from your freshman to sophomore year,” Gottlieb said. “He’s really taught himself how to work hard. He’s learned just going to the gym and working out is one thing, but having a plan is another. We’ve seen that from him, and his development has been tremendous. I think the big thing for him is, when we have limited depth, he’s got to make the most of his fouls.”

Plenty of responsibility has fallen on point guard JaQuori McLaughlin to handle the ball offensively; he has started the last seven games, averages 2.3 assists and 10.2 points per game this year.

“Definitely I feel like I’ve adjusted pretty well,” McLaughlin said of the transition from high school. “Teammates have helped me, coaches help me and people from around the community.”

“He has a really mature approach for a kid his age,” added assistant coach Gregg Gottlieb. “We saw that in him when we recruited him.”

If there’s one play that defines McLaughlin’s talent—and some of OSU’s struggles this season—it came in the season opener against Prairie View A&M. Coach Tinkle drew up a play for the last shot of the first half, but after McLaughlin dribbled to the wing to start the play, everything broke down. With no one to pass to, McLaughlin took a contested, step back 3-pointer at the buzzer and made it, but Tinkle was not pleased with his team.

“JaQuori went the correct way but the other guys didn’t, so it left JaQuori no option,” Tinkle said. “He did the step back and made a great shot. He’s capable of doing that, but we got on the other guys for focus. And it happened [the next game versus UT San Antonio] a couple of times right out of time outs that we didn’t execute the play that we showed them. I think that’s due to being the early part of the season and being a relatively young team, learning to do those things.”

Tinkle still is in the process of developing consistent focus in his players, but he’s handled plenty of issues like that since his hiring in May 2014. First it was taking over an 8-10 PAC-12 team that seemed to be on the downswing, losing nine players from the 2013-2014 roster due to transferring, graduation or heading to the professional ranks. The Beavers went 17-14 that season despite being picked last in the preseason conference media poll.

Last year’s expectations were much higher, but things weren’t always smooth. The Beavers had to weather a number of injuries as well as a three-game losing streak in January, starting the conference schedule at 2-4. OSU finished the regular season strong and ended a 26-year NCAA Tournament drought.

This year OSU’s had injuries, growing pains and a losing streak already. The Beavers also have plenty of games left on the schedule for getting healthy, building maturity and improving their 3-6 record.

“Since the beginning of the year, we’ve learned a lot, we’ve gotten a lot better and more mature,” Eubanks said. “We’re not anywhere near where we need to be, but its come a long ways.”