CORVALLIS — Roberto Nelson is looking forward to his chance to guide the Oregon State Beavers now that Jared Cunningham has moved on to the NBA.
“When Jared was here I had a smaller role because he was so good and doing so much," Nelson said. “But now I have a different role and get to play a little more freely."
The Beavers went 21-15 last season for their first 20-win season since 1989-90. They led the Pac-12 in scoring with an average of 78.9 points per game, a school record.
A big reason for their offensive success was Cunningham, who last spring was the 24th overall pick in the NBA draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers before he was traded on draft night to the Dallas Mavericks. He was the first Oregon State player to be drafted in 14 years.
Cunningham, who had a year of college eligibility remaining, averaged 17.9 points and 3.8 rebounds, and he had a total of 91 steals.
“The fact that Jared went from an unknown to a first-round draft pick was what a lot of people I ran into on the recruiting trail wanted to talk about. It is one of those things that makes people sit up and take notice of a place like Oregon State," coach Craig Robinson said of Cunningham’s impact on the program. “You can be a pro coming out of here, even if you come in not being considered one."
Nelson replaces Cunningham at shooting guard in the Beavers’ starting lineup. The 6-foot-3 junior played primarily off the bench last season, averaging 9.3 points and 2.6 rebounds.
Nelson was a highly touted recruit out of Santa Barbara, Calif., who made his decision to play for the Beavers after seeing Robinson introduce his sister — Michelle Obama, now the first lady — at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.
“It’s definitely going to be tough because Jared did a lot for us, offensively and defensively, as well as being a leader for us out there," Nelson said. “It’s going to be tough trying to step up in that role and do it. We have a great team and a great supporting cast."
Nelson averaged 15 points during a four-game exhibition trip to Spain and France over the summer.
He will be joined in Oregon State’s starting lineup by 5-9 junior Ahmad Starks at point guard, and forwards Angus Brandt, a 6-10 senior, and Eric Moreland, a 6-10 sophomore. Senior Joe Burton and junior Devon Collier will both vie for the third spot up front.
The Beavers have four freshmen who will also see playing time: 6-6 guard Victor Robbins, 6-5 guard Langston Morris-Walker, 6-7 forward Jarmal Reid, and 6-10 forward Olaf Schaftenaar, younger brother of former Beaver Roeland Schaftenaar.
Oregon State went 7-11 last season in the Pac-12 conference. The Beavers advanced to the semifinals of the league tournament, defeating both Washington and Washington State before falling to Arizona.
The Beavers played in the College Basketball Invitational tournament last season for the third time in four years, advancing to the semifinals, where they fell to Washington State.
This season, Oregon State has been selected to finish eighth in the Pac-12, behind Oregon, in the annual poll of media members who cover the conference.
The Beavers open the season at Gill Coliseum with Niagara on Nov. 9. It is a regional game of the 2K Sports Classic, which benefits the Wounded Warrior Project. Oregon State will also host New Mexico State before traveling to New York for the final round of the tournament, where the Beavers will face Alabama and either Purdue or Villanova at Madison Square Garden.
Oregon State will play No. 7 Kansas, which played in the NCAA title game against Kentucky last season, at the Spring Center in Kansas City, Mo., on Nov. 30.
The Beavers open the Pac-12 schedule at home on Jan. 6 against the rival Ducks.
“We don’t expect to lose the small games and we don’t expect to lose even the big games," Moreland said. “We have a nice team and the sky is the limit for us."