Even through Oregon State‘s rebuilding process took a step backward during a nightmarish 20-loss season last year, fourth-year coach Craig Robinson appeared confident about the program’s future at Pac-12 Media Day last Friday.
“Over the past few years, we’ve been rebuilding the place at Oregon State, and I’ve sort of had to couch my statements with terms like, ‘Well, we’re going to try our best’ and all that kind of stuff,” Robinson said. “For the first time, I think I’ve got a team that can compete in every single game we play this season, and I couldn’t be more excited.”
One of the major reasons for Robinson’s optimism is the development of junior guard Jared Cunningham, a 6-foot-4 high flyer who averaged 14.2 points per game as a sophomore. Cunningham spoke with me recently about why he thinks Oregon State will be better this season, how he tried to improve his game over the summer and of course the dunk that landed him on highlight shows nationally last winter.
JE: The play you’re probably best-known for nationally is the tip dunk you had against Arizona, which was one of the best dunks of the season last year. Take me through your memories of that play.
JC: I remember Joe Burton shot the ball, I saw it in the air and there was nobody in front of me, so I just tried to crash the boards as fast as I could. The ball was in my hands, I threw it through and the crowd went crazy and my team went crazy. I was just glad it helped us pull out the victory. It took me a long time to realize how big a play that was, but after seeing the video and the replays, it still excites me. It was exciting for all of us.
JE: How long did it take for the calls and texts to start coming in after that dunk?
JC: I think I gained at least 50 new followers on Twitter. All my friends were calling me to congratulate me. It was on ESPN that night. It was pretty crazy.
JE: Your coach has said this is the first time in his tenure he feel s you guys can compete with anyone on your schedule. What makes you guys confident this team is better than the ones that have struggled the past few years?
JC: We have a great group of players. Everyone brings something to the table. We’re changing some of our offensive scheme and we’re going to be playing more man-to-man on defense, which some of us are really going to benefit from. Everyone has a winning attitude right now. We’re working hard every day.
JE: You’ve been a 1-3-1 zoning team under Craig Robinson in the past. Will man-to-man benefit you guys because of your length and athleticism at guard?
JC: Man-to-man is good for some of us. The big men prefer zone, but because we’re so athletic on the perimeter, I think it will help our defense.
JE: I thought you guys had enough talent to maybe finish in the upper half of the Pac-10 last season. Can you explain from your perspective where it went wrong?
JC: I feel we struggled most with leadership and discipline. On the road, we couldn’t really get wins. We’d come in thinking about how fast we wanted to get out of there. This year, we’ve got to focus on going on the road, getting wins and coming back. We’ve got the talent. It’s more about staying focused and knowing your role on the team.
JE: One of the things that has hurt you guys in the past has been early-season losses to teams you probably should beat. Is there anything you guys can do to make sure that doesn’t happen again this year?
JC: We’re taking everything one game at a time. You can’t look ahead to other games and mark off on your schedule who you’re going to beat. If you focus on each game, that’s how we’re going to avoid that this year.
JE: There were high expectations for Roberto Nelson last season once he became eligible and he had an up-and-down season. Have you seen him take his game to a new level over the offseason?
JC: I’ve seen a lot. Roberto has a lot of offensive skill, but this year he’s focusing more on defense. His offense will come — he can still shoot the ball and go past his defender. But I figure once he focuses on his defense, I figure a lot of other things will come for him.
JE: You were a top 100 recruit out of high school, so there were high expectations for you too when you got to Oregon State. How difficult was the transition for you?
JC: They had a point guard already, Josh Tarver, and I came in as a freshman trying to get ready to play. Going through workouts and weights for a full year was tough for me, but the coaches threw me out there early, I got experience and I took it from there.
JE: What areas of your game did you try to improve this offseason?
JC: In the spring and summer, I worked on my jump shot a lot. I just tried to perfect it and to work on knocking down shots from all areas of the court. My ball handling is still something I need to improve on. I’m still doing that. I see a lot of improvement, but you never can say you’re done with something. You’ve got to keep on working on it.
JE: Was there a specific part of your shot you felt wasn’t where you wanted it to be?
JC: One of the difficulties for me is keeping my arm in and getting the release and the rotation of the ball right. I just got up a lot of shots to try to get better at that. If I get my jump shot to be more consistent, I feel like it will be harder for defenders to guard me because I can pull up or go right past them. Incorporating that jump shot into my offensive repertoire, that could help me a lot.
More conference previews from the Dagger:
ACC: Lessons from the pros keep North Carolina humble and hungry, ACC projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Wake Forest star Ish Smith scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league ACC games, QA with Florida State junior Michael Snaer
Atlantic 10: Temple’s Micheal Eric hopes to seize his chance, A-10 projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Xavier star Byron Larkin scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league A-10 games, QA with St. Louis guard Kwamain Mitchell
Big East: For Cincinnati’s Yancy Gates, suspension was a turning point; Big East projections and storylines to watch; Ex-Notre Dame forward Jordan Cornette projects the league; Ranking the 15 best non-league Big East games
Big Ten: How Zack Novak became Michigan’s emotional leader; Big Ten projections and storylines to watch ; Ex-Ohio State star Jim Jackson scouts the league; Ranking the 15 best non-league Big Ten games; QA with Michigan State forward Delvon Roe
Big 12: Big 12 projections and storylines to watch, Iowa State’s Royce White aims to capitalize on second chance, Ex-Oklahoma guard Michael Neal projects the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league Big 12 games, QA with Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson
Mountain West: San Diego State out to prove it’s no one-hit wonder; MWC projections and storylines to watch ; Ex-New Mexico forward Daniel Faris projects the league; Ranking the 12 best non-league MWC games; QA with UNLV guard Anthony Marshall