HOOPS: Beavs can win Pac-12

IT'S AN IDEA that seems way out there, Oregon State winning the Pac-12 hoops title. But look around. On the verge of in-conference play, Oregon State is flying high on both ends of the court. They're putting up serious stats. And the Pac-12 is the thinnest it's been in years.

As in tissue paper thin.

No Pac-12 teams are ranked in the Top 25 -- and haven't been for weeks. The conference as a whole is still, remarkably, looking for their first win against a ranked team.

Arizona (9-4) came into the season ranked No. 16 but have had to struggle most of their wins. Cal (10-3), ranked No. 24 in the preseason, was recently crushed 85-68 by No. 23 UNLV. Meanwhile, UCLA has driven off a cliff. Ranked No. 17 in the nation, the 7-5 Bruins lost to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee to open the season and kicked their best physical presence (Reeves Nelson) off the team.

In other words, all of the above, as well as the other Pac-12 squads in 2011-12, have serious, significant flaws.

And the Beavs (10-2) look to be in prime pouncing shape. Of their two losses, one was a 2-point defeat in New Jersey to No. 22 Vandy. The other was to Idaho, in the immediate aftermath of the death of Beaver DT Fred Thompson.

Oregon State is No. 8 in the country in points per game (83.4), No. 5 in the nation in steals (10.4) and sixth in the nation in assists (18.3).

Granted, the Beavs' non-conference slate, the chief argument against them, hasn't been a murderer's row.

But neither is the upcoming conference slate. Yes, the Pac-12 is just that far down this season.

The Beavs no longer run the Princeton offense, or throw a zone at the opponent all game long. As Craig Robinson has increased the talent level, OSU has cranked up the tempo on offense. The man-to-man defense has been nothing short of smothering.

The Beavs have won eight of their games by 20 or more points. There's no reason to think the wins won't keep on coming.

Heck, even Dick Vitale recently tabbed the Beavs as one of his eight "surprise teams".

IT WILL BE a grind, no doubt. The conference is so down that any given team could grab a big win one day, hand over an ugly loss the next.

For Oregon State, it starts at Washington on Thursday (TV: Root-NW, 6p.m.) The Huskies have done their best Jekyll and Hyde impression this season. There have been close losses to Duke and Marquette, and not-so-close losses to the likes of South Dakota State.

UW has dispatched OSU easily in recent years, though the Beavs won the last time the two teams faced one another. You have to go back to 2003 for the last time Oregon State beat the Huskies in Seattle. But the tables look to have been turned this season. Jared Cunningham leads the Pac-12 in scoring (16.8) and steals (3.0).

Roberto Nelson has scored in double-figures in seven consecutive games.

Ahmad Starks is second in the Pac-12 in steals (2.1), third in three-point field goals made (28) and fourth in assist/turnover ratio (2.4).

Believe it. Oregon State has a very good chance to go dancing for the first time since 1989-90. And the Pac-12 crown? Cal has to be the favorite. Stanford, Arizona and UW all have to be considered in the mix, too. But at the conclusion of the non-con schedule, Oregon State is smack dab in the middle of that conversation. It seems strange to say, but Oregon State could well win the conference this season on the hardcourt. Just ask Dicky V.

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