- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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With a break in the action during a free throw, a Pac-10 official walked over to first-year Oregon State coach Craig Robinson and, motioning to the Beavers' Roeland Schaftenaar, asked Robinson, "Hey, did you bring that kid from Brown with you?"
Confused, Robinson asked which player the ref was referring to.
"He said, 'The big kid,' and I told him, 'No, he was here last year,'" Robinson said, laughing. "And he starts arguing with me. He's telling me how he's been in the league all these years and never saw him before.''
Not surprising. The Schaftenaar who took the floor for the 2008-09 season looked nothing like the man wearing orange the year before.
Then again, neither did the Beavers.
Oregon State plummeted about 12 feet south of the basement in 2007-08, not just finishing last in the Pac-10, but doing it in the ignominious fashion of 0-18.
The rapid turnaround in Corvallis is easily the most impressive in college basketball, proving that Robinson, the brother of first lady Michelle Obama, has more going for him than a well-connected family tree. And Oregon State's run from zero conference wins in '07-08 to 18 overall wins and a CBI title in '08-09 didn't go unnoticed.
In the preseason coaches' poll this year, the Beavers were picked fifth. But none of the four above the Beavers started at zero.
A team that was a laughingstock two years ago now is talking about making its first NCAA tournament since 1990.
And no one is laughing.
"It's crazy, considering where we came from two years ago," Schaftenaar said. "We all heard what people were saying about us, that there wasn't a single player on our team who should even be in the Pac-10. To go from such a low to such a high makes the high even better. The change is amazing."
The change has been most amazing for Schaftenaar. The 6-foot-11 Netherlands product has gone from invisible to impossible to miss, blossoming under Robinson's so-called "Princeton" offense.
Schaftenaar's game -- honed by his 7-2, former-professional-basketball-player father, Philip -- is ideal for the way Robinson wants to coach. Blessed with great court vision, a point guard's passing touch and dribbling skills a guard 10 inches his junior would envy, Schaftenaar is the perfect point-center.
And while the Princeton style might seem to be predicated on 3-point sharpshooters and well-timed back-door cuts, the center is the engine that makes it go. Virtually all the Princeton plays run through the big man positioned at the top of the key. He makes the reads and looks for the back-door cuts. Remember, it was a big man (Steve Goodrich), not a guard, who dished that pass to Gabe Lewullis for Princeton's upset of UCLA in the 1996 NCAA tournament.
"It's not a system; it's players and basketball,'' Robinson said of his style of play. "The thing about the Princeton offense, it's always been about player development.''
For Schaftenaar, getting the new offense and new staff was like tossing off his shackles.
By the end of his sophomore season in 2008, a season filled with turmoil after coach Jay John was fired in January, Schaftenaar was ready to leave Oregon State.
He didn't go so far as to make inquiries, but the thought certainly was in his head.
"I think everybody at the end of that year had a hard time, and I was part of that," Schaftenaar said. "It was just horrible what we went through. That year had just been a mess, and we didn't know any of the coaches when they were hired. I wasn't sure what I was going to do.''
When Robinson came in from Brown, Schaftenaar was still skeptical, but the coach spent the bulk of his early time in Corvallis making the hard sell, in essence rerecruiting the guys on his roster.
When he finally could exhale and survey the landscape around him, Robinson found players hungry to improve. They weren't at all resistant to the new offense, but rather embraced it as perhaps a salvation from losing.
Robinson also realized people were wrong. Oregon State was hardly bereft of talent. It just wasn't using the talent in the right places.
Exhibit A? Schaftenaar.
"He played in the low post before, and that's not his strength,'' Robinson said. "At least it wasn't right away. His skill level is such that he can do anything you ask him to do on the court. He needed a forum to showcase that.''
Given a few months to understand the nuances of his new offense, Schaftenaar strode into the spotlight.
He scorched Stanford for 26, and in season-highlight wins over Cal and the Cardinal, he averaged 20 points, five assists and two steals, helping the Beavers to a Bay Area sweep for the first time in 19 years.
By season's end, he put up 15 double-digit nights, 10 more than he managed to produce in his previous two seasons, and saw a significant jump in his numbers. Overall, he averaged 10.5 points, 4 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.
Now for the tricky part: continuing to improve when everyone is watching.
Oregon State no longer is everyone's favorite patsy. The word is out on how the Beavers play and the fact that they can play.
The players say the change is welcome -- "Last year, we were still in that negative funk. Now this year, there are expectations on us and we have some of our own,'' Schaftenaar said -- but it's a change that comes with the newfangled world of expectations.
"It's going to be different for everyone, but especially for Roeland,'' Robinson said. "He's going to have to allow us to ride on his shoulder. He played well last year, but now we need him to be the kind of guy who can carry a team.''
In other words, a player everyone notices.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.