Expectations are rising for third-year Oregon State coach Jay John's Beavers, and he has nowhere to turn for blame but the mirror.
It is John who cobbled together a young team that re-energized the former echo chamber called Gill Coliseum during a surprising 12-16 season. It is John whose scrappy Beavers defeated 14th-ranked Arizona, knocked off Oregon for the first time in five years and could have flirted with a winning season were it not for two devastating defeats to Pac-10 runner-up Washington.
And it is John who has every key player back for a legitimate run at the Beavers' first winning season since 1990, a feat long-suffering fans of the nation's 12th-winningest program fully expect.
"We're going to repeat a cycle now where everybody knows what to expect," John said. "We're laying the foundation, and I feel good about what we've accomplished. Now we know we can look at this and say, 'That's good, keep this, don't keep that, what are a couple of things we need for this and that.' It's exciting."
OSU, which lost five Pac-10 games by a total of 19 points, suddenly finds itself in the unusual position of having to guard against too much swagger, thanks to the return of 99 percent of its scoring, 98 percent of its rebounding and 100 percent of its assists.
FRONTCOURTAn expected weakness became a strength when former walk-on David Lucas emerged to become one of the Pac-10's unlikely stars and shed the ubiquitous "son of former NBA great Maurice Lucas" tag. Lucas, who didn't even play until midway through his sophomore season because of a perceived lack of effort, now hopes to use his final season to launch him to the NBA. He figures to get more help up front from rangy sophomore Kyle Jeffers and tireless senior Jim Hanchett -- a tight end on the Beavers football team -- as well as 7-foot-2 redshirt freshman Liam Hughes, a project whose massive body and decent mobility will disrupt opponents' inside play.
Spring-loaded sophomore Kenny Hooks will give OSU a formidable frontline if he improves his conditioning and jumper.
The X-factor is Nick DeWitz, an athletic journeyman who at 6-8 is one of the team's best passers and shooters. DeWitz, who will be eligible in mid-December, is penciled in to play the 3 position, but he gives OSU the option of speeding up if he moves to power forward.
John also is high on freshman Marcel Jones, a 6-8 leaper who is expected to be a defensive presence.
BACKCOURTThe Beavers knew they'd have the quickness, athleticism and depth to finally defend in the Pac-10, but what they didn't expect was the emergence of Chris Stephens, an unheralded off-guard whose walk-on-to-riches story rivals Lucas'.
The junior is now the biggest name in a backcourt with so much depth that John will use a shuttle system that limits minutes and, he hopes, increases efficiency and productivity. For two years, Lamar Hurd has been the mainstay at the point, but that position likely will now go to Jason Fontenet, a waterbug-like scorer who might be the team's best perimeter shooter.
Where that leaves Hurd, who was second in the Pac-10 in assists, is anybody's guess. At 6-4 and heady beyond his years, he provides value at any of three positions, but until he develops a reliable perimeter jumper he'll be an offensive liability.
The one guard who'll always have a home in the lineup is the human bumper car, J.S. Nash, who led the team in floor burns and clutch plays.
To keep defenses from sagging on Lucas and the slashing guards, OSU can turn to Angelo Tsagarakis, who set the school record for 3-pointers by a freshman (45).
FINAL ANALYSISOSU has the talent to break through and earn the school's first postseason berth in 15 years. But upward mobility won't be easy in the Pac-10. The league may not be one of the nation's elite, but there is solid depth and very few, if any, weak teams. The Beavers could be much-improved but not have many more league wins to show for it.