CORVALLIS, Ore. — Tres Tinkle had it planned for a month.
Still, Tres (pronounced “Trace”, like the Spanish word for the number three, as he is the third child of Wayne and his wife, Lisa) waited until this week to tell his dad that he, too, would become a Beaver. Back in Missoula, Mont. — where he will stay for his senior season at Hellgate High — he picked out a card with a cover that read, “Make a Wish.” Inside, Tres wrote a note to his dad, saying that if he had one wish, it would be to play for Wayne at Oregon State, “rambling on” about special milestones they could encounter together. He closed with, “I hope this is your wish, too.”
This past Tuesday, his mom delivered the card — complete with a framed 8x10 photo of Tres in a No. 3 Beavers jersey — to her husband’s office, where Wayne promptly started crying. When they talked on the phone, Tres called him “Coach.” A choked up Wayne told his youngest child, “I’ve waited so long to hear that.”
It’s a heartwarming story. Perhaps more importantly for Oregon State, it wasn’t the only bit of good news last week for a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1990. In addition to Tres, a 6-foot-7 forward who is ranked by Rivals as the No. 88 prospect in the country, the Beavers landed commitments from three other top-150 prospects: Stephen Thompson Jr., a 6-3 shooting guard from Torrance, Calif., (No. 74); Derrick Bruce, a 6-3 point guard from Moreno Valley, Calif. (No. 123) and Drew Eubanks, a 6-10 forward from Portland (No. 133).
When news of the quartets’ decisions broke Tuesday afternoon, Twitter buzzed with chatter that, after years of being a Pac-12 doormat, Oregon State might at last be relevant again. As far as Pat Strickland is concerned, it’s about time. A Portland-area AAU coach — he runs the NW Xpress team that Eubanks plays on — and head coach at Jefferson High in North Portland since 1999, Strickland has watched too much homegrown talent leave the state for college.
“I definitely wish that Oregon and Oregon State would have presented a better option at times,” says Strickland, who played at OSU from 1991-93 and has mentored almost every Division I player who prepped in Oregon. “Some of those guys were so talented they were going to go to [elite] programs no matter what. But if Oregon and Oregon State had been presentable, they at least would have had a chance.”
The list of recent major Division I talent that opted to go elsewhere is long. Kevin Love (UCLA), Kyle Singler (Duke) and Terrence Jones (Kentucky) are just a few of the prominent high school players from recent years who left their home states for more traditional powers across the country.
Tinkle’s commitment to recruiting in-state will pay dividends now and in the future, Strickland said. And signing a top-10 class — which this group is projected to be — could be huge for the next wave of talent, in the Northwest and beyond.
“These guys are pioneers, so to speak, for Coach Tinkle,” Strickland says. “Talk about getting off to a bangin’ start.”
Tinkle, who led Montana to three NCAA tournament berths in eight years, is more likely to be the one getting knocked around in 2014-15. The Beavers have just nine scholarship players on the roster, and that number could be whittled to eight if guard Chai Baker, who suffered an apparent cardiac-related medical incident at OSU’s practice facility on Aug. 19, is not cleared to play. Their leading returning scorer, Langston Morris-Walker, averaged just four points a year ago for a team that went 16-16, 8-10 in the Pac-12 under the since-fired Craig Robinson.
Still, with a quartet of game-changers on the way, there is the rare feeling of optimism around the basketball program.
Tres, who was being recruited by California, Stanford and Utah, is a heady lefthander who can play inside and out and has oodles of basketball savvy. Thompson Jr., whose father Stephen Sr. is an OSU assistant and a former star at Syracuse, has a reputation as an impressive outside shooter, and chose the Beavers over San Diego State and Arizona State, among others. Eubanks is a tremendous leaper with raw talent who was just starting to turn heads on the recruiting trail when he picked Oregon State.
Then there’s Bruce. A basketball junkie -- he dribbled a ball through the airport when he arrived for his recruiting visit last weekend -- he has reclassified to 2015 and will play at a prep school in Orlando this season in order to add weight to his 155-pound frame. His AAU coach, Elvert “Kool-Aid” Perry, says Bruce is “Rod Strickland with a jump shot, and without all the drama.”
Together, they comprise maybe the best recruiting class in OSU basketball history. And this could just be the beginning: Theoretically, the Beavers will have an advantage when Ethan Thompson, Stephen Jr.’s younger brother and a sophomore guard from Torrance, Calif., picks a school.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that the Thompson brothers will play together in Corvallis. The circumstances still have to work out, even when there’s a family connection. Tres had always wanted to play for his dad, but it wouldn’t have happened if his father hadn’t moved up to a power conference school. Still, Tres still teased his dad that he would have to treat him like any other prospect, and give a persuasive salespitch.
Already, there are jokes about what will happen if fathers benches son.
“My mom says she’s gotta protect her baby,” Tres said. “She says if he’s getting on me, or if I’m not shooting the ball enough or playing enough, she’s going to be in his ear telling him what to do.”
Wayne Tinkle can’t say exactly how he’ll handle coaching his son because NCAA rules prohibit his discussing commitments before they become official, even if those commitments are their own flesh-and-blood. Beavers assistant coach Gregg Gottlieb, however, knows how important it is to change the perception of the program.
He points to tradition -- the Beavers have been to two Final Fours and were an NCAA tournament regular under Hall of Fame head coach Ralph Miller throughout the 1980s -- and a supportive community as reasons why OSU can return to prominence. As for the notion that location makes Oregon State less attractive — with a population of roughly 55,000, Corvallis isn’t exactly a major metropolitan area — Gottlieb isn’t buying it.
“Do you think guys go to Lawrence, Kan., because it’s a cool town?” says Gottlieb, the brother of former college point guard Doug Gottlieb. “No, it’s because they have a tremendous basketball tradition. Kansas is a perfect example of what you can build.
“At one time, Oregon State was that place — why not again?”
The players saw potential, too. Talking together until 4 a.m. last Sunday morning in Tres’ hotel room on their official visit, all four agreed going somewhere unconventional had its benefits. Their goal is to make the Beavers prominent again.
“Oregon State hasn’t had the best reputation the last few years,” Bruce says. “But personally, I like being the underdog.”
“People at Oregon State have no idea what’s coming,” says Perry, Bruce’s AAU coach. “They better get ready to be entertained.”
He was talking, of course, about Bruce. But based on the excitement -- and the players -- being brought in by Tinkle, the same could finally be said for the entire program.