INDIANAPOLIS — They are the party guest who just keeps hanging round. They weren’t invited, have cleaned the buffet, kicked the keg and taken over your guest room.
They are the Oregon State Beavers, and they had about as good of a chance of merely making the NCAA tournament three weeks ago as Donald Trump does getting elected mayor of Bend.
But they showed up at the Pac-12 tournament and simply haven’t found a team with the mettle to force them to leave. In Las Vegas, they beat three teams that went on to advance in the NCAA tournament — UCLA, Oregon and Colorado. In the NCAA tournament, they’ve beaten No. 5 Tennessee, No. 4 Oklahoma State and No. 8 Loyola.
Has anyone played better basketball in the last three weeks than the No. 12-seeded Beavers? They were picked last in the Pac-12 in the preseason, ranked No. 5 in the Pac-12 during the season and suddenly find themselves among the final eight teams.
“I knew that this thing was meant to be,” Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle said. “I knew it was … It’s an incredible feeling.”
Has there been a team that’s ever advanced this far with such modest preseason rankings? If you find one, your thumbs will be calloused searching through the decades. Has there ever been a No. 12 seed dancing this long? Only one other. That’d be Missouri back in 2002, which reached the Elite Eight as a No. 12 seed. A No. 12 seed has never made the Final Four, and Oregon State has the chance to be the lowest seed to ever reach it. (Four different No. 11s have reached the Final Four.)
Oregon State advances to face the winner of No. 11 Syracuse and No. 2 Houston. And if you think the Beavers can’t keep advancing, you simply haven’t been paying attention. They’ve gone from uninvited to the March postseason to staying so long they’re paying taxes. So don’t think they’re going to leave soon.
(In actuality, the Beavers have been an economic boon for the Pac-12, as they’ve earned about $6.72 million for the league with four games that were completely unexpected after their Pac-12 tournament run.)
So how did we get here? On Saturday afternoon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Oregon State overcame a six-minute field goal drought to start the game, flummoxed Loyola after switching to a zone defense about three minutes into the game and held off a late Loyola charge that cut the game to four points with 1:32 remaining.
Tinkle utilized two different zones, mixed lineups and didn’t let the Ramblers dictate pressure. Tinkle declined to go into too many details on Oregon State's primary zone, as he didn't want to give away anything to Houston, but he said the Beavers “morphed together a couple of different zones."
The zones made it so Loyola played the game ankle deep in quicksand. They finished the game 5-for-23 from 3-point range, with no miss providing a more appropriate summary than the one that Loyola’s Braden Morris rimmed out with 48.8 seconds remaining and the lead at just five points.
The ball ricocheted to Morris off a turnover that Loyola forced on the press. It bounded perfectly to Morris along just outside the left wing, as if drawn up on Sister Jean’s prayer card. He missed. They all missed. Lucas Williams was 2-for-8, many of which rattled in and out. Norris shot 2-for-5. Keith Clemons was 1-for-5.
Credit Beavers coach Wayne Tinkle for adjusting on the sideline instead of staring blankly into the abyss like Illinois’ Brad Underwood did as Loyola stole the Illini’s soul and ended their season. Tinkle went zone, mixed up lineups and didn’t let the Ramblers dictate pressure.
Senior guard Ethan Thompson ended up the offensive bell cow for Oregon State, as he finished with 22 points. Junior forward Warith Alatishe finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Thompson indicated that Oregon State's success has been as much about mindset as strategy. "Positive energy leads to positive outcomes," Thompson said.
The last time that Oregon State advanced this far in the NCAA tournament was 1982, when it was a No. 2 seed and lost to No. 1 Georgetown. (To give you an idea how long ago this was, Idaho had a No. 3 seed in that tournament.)
So how did we get here? How did Oregon State become the uninvited guest that kept sticking around? Well, Tinkle pinpoints the pivot coming in a February loss to Arizona. He said he started stressing “executing, enjoying each other and playing harder than our opponents.”
A few lineup tweaks to better define roles and more of an emphasis on playing zone helped Oregon State find a groove. The Beavers have won four of six to finish the regular season, with the zone utilizing their length and size. And in the postseason, they’ve won different ways — blistering shooting against Tennessee and Oklahoma State and a defensive gem against Loyola.
"Their minds are clear, they’re playing hard, they have each other’s back," Tinkle said.
The Ramblers were an efficiency dynamo against Illinois last week. They finished just 33.3% overall from the field. Senior Cameron Krutwig had 14 points for Loyola, which took about 35 minutes to find rhythm and never quite found enough.
Instead, this will go down as the defensive gem of this unlikely Oregon State run. They should borrow the football program’s turnover chainsaw to have on the bench Saturday.
Regardless, Oregon State has once again announced it’s not leaving the party. At this point, you should order more food, buy a new keg and stop acting surprised.
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