OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. -- Oregon State will snap a 26-year NCAA Tournament drought, the second-longest active streak among major conference programs in the country, when it faces VCU on Friday in Oklahoma City. The Beavers, considered a bubble team by some NCAA Tourney prognosticators, cruised in as a surprising No. 7 seed in the West Region and open with a Rams squad that will be making its sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
The return to the NCAA Tournament for the Beavers is filled with ironies. Oregon State's last previous trip to the NCAA Tournament occurred in 1990 when future Naismith Hall of Famer and longtime NBA defensive stalwart Gary "The Glove" Payton played point guard. This year Wayne Tinkle's squad is led by Payton's son, Gary Payton II, who earned his second consecutive Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award and also was a first team all-conference selection. And should the Beavers get on a roll and make it to the Elite Eight they could very likely see a familiar face - Civil War rival and No. 1 seed Oregon.
ABOUT VCU (24-10): The Rams didn't miss a beat despite the departure of head coach Shaka Smart to Texas, earning a share of the regular season Atlantic 10 title and then making it to their fourth consecutive A-10 Tournament championship game where they lost to Saint Joseph's, 87-74, on Sunday.
"Our expectations were a little bit lower than they've been this year," coach Will Wade, a former Smart assistant, said. "I don't think a lot of people thought we'd tie for the regular season and (get) back in the conference final."
Four starters return from a squad that fell 75-72 in overtime to Ohio State in the first round of last year's NCAA Tourney - including senior guard Melvin Johnson, who leads the team in scoring (17.4) and has made 104 3-pointers; junior guard JeQuan Lewis (10.7); and junior forward Mo Alie-Cox (10.2).
ABOUT OREGON STATE (19-12): The Beavers finished in a three-way tie for sixth place with USC and Washington in the Pac-12 and lost to Cal, 76-68, in the quarterfinals of the conference tourney - which is why people in Corvallis were a tad nervous until the NCAA Tournament pairings were released.
Payton has been spectacular at times, leading the team in scoring (15.9), rebounding (7.9), assists (5.1), steals (2.5) and SportsCenter appearances for highlight-reel dunks. Two other players average in double figures - freshman forward Tres Tinkle (13.1) and freshman guard Stephen Thompson Jr. (10.8) - but it's the Beavers' 1-3-1 zone defense that has helped key the team's turnaround, forcing an average of 13.5 turnovers per game and holding opponents to just 32.9 percent shooting from 3-point range.
PREDICTION: VCU 74, Oregon State 70
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