The Beavers’ bond began over scrambled eggs and sausage links.
Shari’s is a breakfast spot in Corvallis, Ore. It’s known for its scrambler -- a mixture of pancakes, bacon, sausage, hash browns, scrambled eggs and cheddar cheese -- a meal that would pack pounds on most people but only serves as a limited fuel supply for calorie-consuming college basketball players.
Jared Cunningham leads his Oregon State teammates there often. Sometimes, it’s their first stop of the day. But they’re also prone to the late runs that justify the smattering of 24/7 restaurants in most college towns.
And while a meal seems trivial, it’s a significant component in 10-2 Oregon State’s resurgence, Cunningham said.
“We always go there and eat breakfast, night and day. We’re always there. They all know our faces,” he told ESPN.com. “I don’t really know why we didn’t do it a lot [last season]. We really [weren’t] together on and off the court a lot. This year, we made it a point to be with each other and just to hang out a lot and get know each other more than we did last year.”
The Beavers amassed an 11-20 record last season. They were 14-18 during the 2009-10 season. The intriguing storyline of a new head coach, Craig Robinson, balancing the pressures of running a new program and being President Obama’s brother-in-law had worn off entering this season.
So as Cunningham sweats in gyms during the offseason in hopes of making the Beavers a viable assembly in the new Pac-12, he also thought of ways to change the team’s limited chemistry.
Meals seemed like a good place to start. Then, the Beavers started showing up together at sporting events on campus. And playing video games. Movies, too. Anything to build camaraderie. Cunningham is one of the team’s veterans who’s taking that multifaceted approach toward leadership.
“Off the court, we’re always together,” he said. “That really helps us on the court, trusting each other and believing in each other.”
The Pac-12 is struggling. No team has established itself as a clear frontrunner as league play commences. So Oregon State is confident, Cunningham said, as it tries to build off its strong start.
A Beavers team that let the stench of tough losses linger in the past is quick to recover mentally now. After a recent loss to Idaho, they talked openly about their disappointment during the next day’s practice. But players and coaches also decided that they couldn’t worry about the loss. Their response? They won their next four games.
Cunningham is the league’s top scorer and one of its best defenders (his three steals per game lead the conference). The Beavers are the eighth-best scoring offense (83.4 points per game) in the country.
Cunningham said his numbers can be attributed to an offseason of flaw-fixing. Game film showed that he’d missed teammates too often on some of his wild drives, ultimately drawing charging fouls instead of finding the open man. And he turned the ball over too much.
Well, his assists are up and his turnovers are down, albeit slightly, this season. He has a 49.2 effective field goal percentage in Pomeroy’s ratings.
With Cunningham, the Beavers are capable of competing for the conference title. But his push to bring players together, a missing element of past teams, is as vital as his on-court production.
“Just for them to believe in me, and I believe in them …. that’s what’s helping our team out this year,” he said.