If anyone needs to be reminded what school broke UCLA's 13-year grip on the Pacific 10 Conference basketball championship last year, it was Oregon State, whose multiple team talents often provided a dimension that a lot of pro outfits would like to have.
But it isn't just balance and a tough defense that have the Beavers off to a 12-0 start and in second place (behind DePaul) in both wire service polls this season. There is power and depth all up and down the line, a three-guard offense that is one of the best around, and sound coaching from Ralph Miller, who has had only two losing seasons in 29 years.
Miller teaches a high-post, low-post offense that gets everybody involved in the action, makes it difficult for opponents to get set on defense, and constantly creates openings to the basket. People whose pictures hang on post office walls have a better chance of getting a credit card that most opponenets have of getting a rebound away from the Beavers.
"Some kids you have to see three or four times before you know whether they can someday play in the National Basketball Association," explained Al Menendez, director of player personnel for the New Jersey Nets. "But I'd say there are at least four players on Oregon State who can move into the pros without any trouble. Physically they're big enough, mentally they're tough enough, and under Miller you know they're going to have the necessary fundamentals."
The four Beaver players Menendez was referring to are center Steve Johnson, guards Ray Blume and Mark Radford, and 6 ft. 9 in. freshman forward Charlie Sitton, possibly the best basketball player the state of Oregon has ever produced.
Sitton, a scarecrow for his height right now, at only 185 pounds, so far has played much stronger physically than he looks. With Miller able to hold some of the pressure down by not asking Charlie to do too many things, Sitton has been able to make a genuine team contribution while still wearing training wheels.
A year ago Oregon State went 26-4 overall, but for some reason flamed out against Lamar in the second round of the NCAA Western Regional playoffs. The defeat was totally unexpected, partly because the Beavers had been as steady as a sewing machine and partly because Lamar had acquired a reputation for being undisciplined on defense.
Prior to the start of this year's Pac-10 race, coach George Raveling of Washington State was quoted as saying: "There is no way anybody can pick against the Beavers. They're just like those old UCLA powerhouse that John Wooden used to have."
If Oregon State has a key it is probably Johnson who established an NCAA single- season field goal shooting record (71 percent) last season while averaging 17 points and seven rebounds a game. Although his aggressive style often gets Steve into foul trouble, Miller feels that to make him play and any other way would be a mistake. Johnson also did extensive weight lifting last summer that now puts him at a muscular 245 pounds, with shoulders to match.
"Actually that was the first summer in four years that Steve wasn't fighting injuries that prevented him from working out," Miller said. "Naturally it's important for players to do as much as they can on their own, and I think what this extra work has done for Steve is to give him a reserve tank that maybe he didn't have before."
Although the graduation of forward Dwayne Allen and backup center Tony Martin cost Oregon State two fine defensive players, Miller has come up with two excellent replacements in swingman Les Conner and Sitton.
Conner who was California junior college Co-Player of the Year last season, could give courses in offense. Les is a gifted ballhandler and passer who knows how to build a play and then finish it off.
As a swingman up front and also in the backcourt for seniors Radford and Blume he is the man who gives Miller the luxury of what is basically a three-guard offense.
Oregon State is also well-protected up from with junior Rob Holbrook, senior Jeff Stoutt, (a sixth man type who often scores in bunches), and senior Billy McShane, who has the ability to play either forward or center.
Miller, who teaches one of the finest passing offenses in the game, has never really been out of touch with scoring. While a football player at Wichita State , Ralph once threw for five touchdowns against Kansas.
As a basketball coach he came close to the NCAA finals in 1964 with a Wichita State team featuring Dave Stallworth, who went on to play several years in the NBA. He was close again in 1970 at Iowa, with most of his offense being generated by Fred Brown and John Johnson, both now with the NBA Seattle SuperSonics.
If Oregon State fans have started to fantasize a little this season about an NCAA championship, who can blame them?