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The Empire strikes back

If you can believe it, there is at least one group of players in the country looking forward to playing the top-ranked Stanford Cardinal basketball team.
/ Source: The McAllen Monitor

If you can believe it, there is at least one group of players in the country looking forward to playing the top-ranked Stanford Cardinal basketball team.

That would be the young, and brash, Oregon State Beavers, who are getting solid help from freshmen Kyle Jeffers of Montgomery High in Santa Rosa and Angelo Tsagarakis of Casa Grande in Petaluma. They play the Cardinal tonight at Stanford.

"We're looking forward to the rematch," said Jeffers, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward. "It should be an interesting game."

Until last weekend, such a comment would be laughable. After all, the Beavers don't even have a winning record (11-13) and Stanford (23-0) doesn't know how to lose.

But something changed last weekend. The Beavers, who don't have a senior on the roster and start three juniors and two sophomores, defeated the then-No. 14 Arizona Wildcats, 90-84, in Corvallis.

Tsagarakis scored 13 points, including critical back-to-back 3-point goals, in the stunning victory.

OK, one big win -- even against a ranked team -- does not make a powerhouse. But it has given the Beavers something to sink their teeth into.

"We're way more confident now," said Tsagarakis, who doesn't start but is generally the first guard off the bench and is fifth in scoring, averaging 6.4 points per game. "We never really broke down this year, but we're playing very solid now. We're finally playing all 40 minutes."

Still, the Beavers have a long way to go if they hope to be competitive with Stanford. The Cardinal beat the Beavers, 62-48, in Corvallis on Jan. 29. Oregon State also lost to Cal by 14 points the same week.

Oregon State's second-year coach Jay John hopes his players keep their heads under the clouds after last week's big upset.

"We played pretty well against Stanford, holding them to 62 points, but we had 9,000 fans on our side," said John. "Now we'll be facing a sellout at Stanford and senior day at Cal (Saturday), so they'll have close to a sellout."

Jeffers hopes the Beavers can squeeze into the Pac-10 tournament. The top eight teams qualify and OSU is tied with Washington State for eighth place.

"We still have four more games to go," said Jeffers. "If we go down to the Bay Area this weekend and get a win we have the Southern California teams at home our final week. We feel pretty good about making the tournament."

After Stanford, Oregon State will play underachieving Cal (11-12, 7-7 Pac-10), UCLA (11-12, 7-8) and USC (11-13, 6-9).

On a more veteran team, Jeffers and Tsagarakis might not be playing as much. But the two fit right into the young mix assembled by John.

The team's most experienced player is sophomore point guard Lamar Hurd.

"Both Kyle and Angelo have achieved quite well," John said before Tuesday's practice. "Kyle has started most of our games (19 of 24) and Angelo has played over 300 minutes (374). They're getting a lot more time than freshmen usually get."

John said Tsagarakis, who lacks the speed of most Pac-10 guards and is relatively short at 6-2, already has a reputation as a shooter that has teams watching out for him. But the coach warns that Tsagarakis will have to become a more "crafty" defender.

The coach said Jeffers, if he continues to develop, will become one of the best big men in the conference.

Tsagarakis is averaging 15.6 minutes per game and his roommate, Jeffers, is averaging 19.8. Both say they are happy at the school and feel right at home on the team. But they know they must keep improving.

Jeffers, who is the most athletic of the big men on the team, says he has struggled finishing his shots. He is averaging 5.1 points a game.

"I'm not happy with my scoring," Jeffers said. "It will come, but guys were always smaller than me in high school. Now I have a hand in my face all the time and I'm getting bumped pretty good."

But Jeffers has a solution.

"I'm still skinny at 240 pounds. I need to adapt to the physicality of the game. I need to add 10 to 15 pounds. I need to get stronger and keep my focus. I'll be okay."

Tsagarakis, who played one year at Casa Grande after relocating from France, said he had some early struggles adjusting to the quickness and strength of opposing guards.

"These (Division I) programs are very organized, with good scouting reports and players who watch video to determine how to stop you the most efficient way," Tsagarakis said. "Some teams put short, strong guys on me; others try taller guys, hoping it will affect my game."

Like Jeffers, Tsagarakis is not happy with his scoring output and says he has work to do to become a complete player. He has had several double-digit efforts and several when he has scored only two or three points.

"Coming off the bench, they expect instant offense," he said, laughing. "I think sometimes I don't get enough looks. Sometimes it's hard to get the rhythm right away, but it's part of the job. I know how to deal with it."

You can reach staff writer Ralph Leef at 521-5268 or rleef@pressdemocrat.com.

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