Tradition is everything in college sports, so it was nice to see a familiar trend resurface on Sunday, when the Oregon State Beavers stunned--and yes, stunned is appropriate in this context--the Arizona Wildcats at Gill Coliseum to complete a sweep of the Arizona schools during the opening weekend of Pac-10 play. Arizona's lone non-conference losses came to Kansas and BYU, so needless to say it was an impressive and unexpected victory for the Beavers. But that's nothing new.
In the three years since Craig Robinson came to Corvallis, Oregon State has made a tradition of dreadful starts to its season. 2010-11 was no exception. The Beavers featured their non-conference schedule 5-6, with a loss at Seattle and embarrassing home pratfalls against Texas Southern and Utah Valley. Those performances have lowered expectations for Oregon State entering conference play, making it all the more remarkable that the team has just as consistently competed against Pac-10 foes, going a combined 17-21 over the last three seasons.
I've wasted more time than most sane men trying to make sense of the Beavers the last two years, but it's time for another exploration to see whether Robinson is saving his team's best performances for conference play, as the results would indicate. Using the invaluable treasure trove of data at KenPom.com, I compiled every Oregon State game over the last three years and found the point differential adjusted for location. To this, I compared the Pomeroy ranking of each Beaver foe. Then I graphed those performances, separated into Pac-10 and non-conference play. That looks a little like this:
Normally, we'd expect something of a linear relationship between opponent quality and the outcome of the game. For the Beavers, that doesn't quite hold true. Only at the extremes does Oregon State tend to blow out its opponents or get blown out on a consistent basis. Also note the historic outlier at the bottom of the chart--the Beavers' 51-point home loss to Seattle University last January.
Just looking at the graph alone doesn't quite answer the question of whether Oregon State is really better in Pac-10 play. To shed some light on that, I graphed best-fit trend lines for each of the two data sets, as shown below:
Now we're getting somewhere. Not only is the relationship between opponent and performance stronger within conference play, based on the slope of the trend line, the line itself is higher within the Pac-10--suggesting the Beavers are better against conference foes, by something on the order of 3-4 points.
This could tell us nothing more than that Oregon State starts slowly, something that would have been no surprise in 2008-09, when Robinson was installing his Princeton-style offense and 1-3-1 zone defense with an unfamiliar team. That explanation, however, doesn't square with the fact that the Beavers seem to turn it on as soon as conference play begins. In 2009, for example, Oregon State beat a tournament-bound USC team during the first weekend of Pac-10 play. Last year features a more fascinating stretch. The Beavers hung tough at Washington in their conference opener, then lost by 51 to Seattle before bouncing back to win their next two Pac-10 games against Oregon and Arizona.
Instead, the numbers continue to point to something I observed in an Unfiltered post last year: More than any other team I have ever seen, Oregon State has the ability to play to the level of its opposition. Running that same trendline on the Beavers' combined schedule shows that the difference in the team's performance against the very best opposition it has faced (No. 12 in the Pomeroy rankings) and the very worst (No. 330) to be about 18 points. That is an unexpectedly small margin. If the No. 12 team in the country played the No. 330 team, their rankings would predict a much wider gap--something on the order of about 30 points.
This trend is reinforced by a look at Oregon State's record under Robinson against opponents of various Pomeroy Rankings. Facing teams in the top 50, the Beavers have been competitive, going 9-17. They have dominated teams ranked from 51 through 100, posting a 10-5 record (that's not even including a 3-1 performance against No. 49 Stanford in 2008-09). Now you would expect their record to get really good against lesser opposition, but it does not. Oregon State is 7-9 against teams ranked No. 101 through No. 160 and, incredibly, just 11-11 against teams worse than No. 161.
The in-state rival Oregon Ducks have been far worse than the Beavers during the Robinson era, going 9-29 in conference play. Yet Oregon has lost just three games in that span to sub-160 teams, going 15-3 to fatten its record during the non-conference season. That's a typical performance, as is the Ducks' 3-30 record against top-50 foes. Oregon beats lesser opposition and struggles when the strength of schedule improves during conference play. Oregon State fails to produce such a logical pattern.
So why is this the case? I've been watching the Beavers under Robinson for three years and I have no idea. It doesn't seem possible that motivation could explain the entire difference. Pac-10 foes might have laughed off Oregon State early in 2008-09, but the team quickly established a reputation as a giant-killer. Meanwhile, the Beavers couldn't really be overlooking poor non-conference opposition this consistently, could they?
Oregon State's unorthodox style might present a greater issue to better teams. The Beavers slow games down--though not as much this year--and the Princeton offense is unfamiliar to Pac-10 foes. Without 6'11" center Roeland Schaftenaar handling the ball in the high post, however, Oregon State has utilized less Princeton action this season. Robinson has also cut back on the 1-3-1 defense, playing a good deal of straight 2-3 zone so far this year, including much of the stretch run against Arizona.
It is worth noting that this might be a season where the Beavers are legitimately better later in the year because of the addition of highly touted freshman Roberto Nelson, who finally gained eligibility on Dec. 18 and has been easing his way into the lineup. That said, Nelson was a total non-factor in the win over the Wildcats, missing all five shots he attempted in his 18 minutes of action. At every turn, Oregon State continues to confound. This much is sure, however. Anyone writing the Beavers off in Pac-10 play based on their ugly non-conference performance stands the risk of being proven wrong again.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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