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This Oregon State team was painstakingly put together. At first Miller's stern, unstinting ways took some getting used to. Johnson, a Californian who had run away from home in high school, didn't think the coach liked him. Blume, a self-described "radical troublemaker" as a youngster, was originally scared of Miller and wanted to go back home to Portland. Radford also felt out of his element.
The current group of seniors—minus Johnson, who sat out the 1977-78 season with a broken foot—made their college debuts in faraway North Carolina, losing three games by a total of 77 points. "The beginning of learning the team concept," Radford says of that lost week. Later those Beavers rallied to finish second in the Pac-8 and began calling the old, intimidating coach "Ralph." They broke the ground for the likes of Charlie Sitton, this year's crusher of a freshman forward, who's already first name all the way: "Whatever Ralph says is normally what goes. I learn something every day from Ralph."
Last season when Oregon State won the league it had all the requisite shooting, the back doors and chemistry, but the Beavers seemed to lack emotional fiber, a toughness in the crunch. And the easygoing Johnson was troubled by disagreements with his parents and his soon-to-be in-laws. Last March Johnson married Janice Inman, the daughter of the Portland Trail Blazers' director of player personnel, Stu Inman. Later a son, Marques, was born. Now Johnson can joke about the situation. "My wife asked me, if we had a daughter, what I would think of her going out with a white fellow," Johnson says. "I kind of laughed and told her, 'Well, he'd have to be awfully cool.' "
Following his team's collapse in the NCAA tournament last spring, Miller needed defensive reinforcements. The first was the 6'8" Sitton, a farm kid straight off a tractor in the wheat fields of nearby McNinnville. Norman Rockwell would've loved him. Sitton wears a John Deere cap and says things like "I visited a lot of schools but I always wanted to be a Beaver."
For all Sitton's rural trappings—Blume calls him "Charlie-boy from Sitton Mountain"—he's as smart a freshman defender as Miller has ever seen. Oh, yes, one more thing. Sitton will knock the living daylights out of people; he's a discreet savage on a delicately tuned finesse team. UCLA's Brown calls him "the next David Meyers."
Probably the most important addition to this year's Orange Express, however, is Lester the Molester. A late bloomer from Chabot J.C. in California who never made the first team at Fremont High in Oakland, Conner arrived in Corvallis as a scorer. What he has turned into is the Beavers' best passer and defender.
"Having Conner on your bench is like having George C. Scott do a bit part in your movie," Washington State Coach George Raveling said before Miller moved Conner into the starting lineup last week. Blessed with slithery tentacles and the cunning of a burglar, Conner glides about the floor as if wearing ballet slippers and raises positive hell with the opposing backcourt. It was Conner's astonishing lateral quickness that convinced Miller to install him at the tip of the 1-2-2 zone that completely shut down UCLA. Then against USC he came up with those six thefts and caused half a dozen other turnovers with harassing scare tactics. "The other people's eyes go glassy when they see him now," says Oregon State Assistant Coach Lanny Van Eman. "They want no part of the Molester's area."
Conner's versatility gives the Beavers many added dimensions. Now, for example, the steady Blume, who used to play point guard, has moved to wing to concentrate on scoring, while Jeff Stoutt, the closest thing on campus to a designated shooter, has gone back to the deep bench, from which he tends to explode to the rescue.
"Johnson gives them the points they need and Blume holds them together," said St. John's Assistant Coach Carmine Calzonnetti after scouting the Beavers. "But Conner is the one who makes them so difficult to play against."
The seniors' noses aren't bent out of shape yet, but they may be soon. As reservations have come in for the Beavers' postseason banquet, nine out of 10 boosters have asked to sit at Conner's table.