Oregon State's Ralph Miller is in his 35th season as a basketball coach and can't remember a time when he has had a team with so many early-season injuries to key players.
It began when sophomore guard Eric Knox tore knee ligaments and is now lost for the season. Knox was arguably OSU's best defensive player and floor leader.
Another guard, senior Darryl Flowers, had arthroscopic knee surgery two days into fall practice and still isn't physically sound. Freshman guard Van Anderson, from St. Anthony High in Long Beach, has been hindered by a stress fracture in his foot, and sophomore forward Mike Kaska is still bothered by knee problems.
As a result, the Beavers uncharacteristically lost their first three games before winning a pair.
But Oregon State will be getting a lift at a propitious time in a Pacific 10 basketball opener against USC tonight at 7 at the Sports Arena.
Jose Ortiz, a 6-10 center and a member of the Puerto Rican national team, is now eligible to play for Oregon State. His presence alongside 6-9 Steve Woodside and 6-7 Tyrone Miller gives OSU a formidable front line.
"Ortiz does two things for us right off the bat," Miller said. "He allows me to stabilize our post position, which I haven't been able to do before. He is potentially a better rebounder than our other big people. He is a good potential scorer inside, and that is something else we've been lacking.
"He is also a hard worker and wants to play. He has played a lot of basketball but not in this country. His biggest problem will be adapting to the NCAA type of basketball rather than world competition."
There is only one catch to the emergence of Ortiz. He went to school off and on in Puerto Rico and has only this season of eligibility remaining.
Oregon State is petitioning the NCAA for another year of eligibility for the 21-year-old Ortiz, but Miller isn't optimistic about that. While Ortiz is at Oregon State, he could pose problems for the opposition, beginning with the Trojans, who don't have any dominating post players and give away size to the Beavers on the front line.
USC Coach Stan Morrison isn't sure whether his young team is ready for such an early start in conference competition.
But he said that the Trojans (4-4) are improving and can beat Oregon State if they rebound, block off on the boards, play defense tenaciously and execute their offense. That doesn't leave much margin for error.
USC's starting lineup most likely will include forwards Derrick Dowell and Troy LaMar, center Rod Keller, and guards Tom Lewis and Larry Friend.
Dowell provides rebounding and scoring for USC. Lewis, an impressive freshman from Santa Ana Mater Dei High, leads the team in scoring with a 20.8-points-a-game average. Friend, the floor leader, has the most assists in the Pac-10, 53.
LaMar, a senior who came to USC as a walk-on, brings maturity to Morrison's young team. In addition to Lewis, three other freshmen--Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers from Philadelphia, and Rich Grande from Glendale High--are expected to help USC down the line. The Trojans were a preseason consensus pick to finish in the middle of the league pack, and that seems to be an accurate assessment. They're just coming together as a team.
"Stan has too many young people and he lost some key people, guys who had been there for four years," Miller said, referring to Wayne Carlander, Clayton Olivier, Ron Holmes and Glenn Smith, who provided senior leadership as USC shared the league title with Washington last season.
"Those players hadn't been that good but they jelled, and the organization carried them," Miller continued. "But now Stan is as bad off as anyone because he has so many young guys who are trying to get organized and fit into a system.
"I think they're a good potential ball club, but right now, they aren't much better organized than we are."
Ortiz, though, could make a difference.
Trojan Notes USC and Oregon State split last season, each team winning by the identical score of 60-58. The Trojans got their victory at Corvallis on Larry Friend's off-balance shot with no time remaining. OSU then knocked USC out of sole possession of the conference championship with an overtime win in the last game of the regular season at the Sports Arena. . . . Ralph Miller, the winningest active college basketball coach, has a 10-2 record against Stan Morrison-coached USC teams. Morrison picks Oregon State to win the league title, although Washington is generally favored. . . . Morrison said that USC has made proposals to the Sports Arena regarding better availability of dates and some cosmetic changes in the building, but he wasn't specific. . . . Tom Lewis is the second-leading scorer in the Pac-10 and has not scored fewer than 16 points in USC's eight games this season. . . . Derrick Dowell is tied for third in the league in rebounding with a 9.0 average, and is averaging 16.4 points. He has had five double doubles--double figures in scoring and rebounding--this season.