Way back on March 1, before Wayne Tinkle was permitted entrance into the esteemed college basketball coaches’ club, he was in charge of an Oregon State program that had reached one NCAA Tournament in his first five seasons, wasn’t going to make it in his sixth even if there had been a March Madness and now owned a 13-11 record after a two-game Pacific-12 Conference winning streak.
And if you’d posed the question of whether Tinkle could coach to anyone in the game — coach, analyst, particularly anyone who had opposed his teams — you almost certainly would have been treated to a lecture about how gifted he really was.
While many in the public continue to judge college basketball coaches by their ability to make this tournament or achieve something extraordinary once there, fellows like Tinkle keep making their teams better — until, perhaps, someone in an athletic director’s office or a president’s suite calls to say it is time for someone else to try taking the program to the “next level.”
Oregon State had not been to the Elite Eight since the great Ralph Miller got them there in 1982, and now perhaps they’ll say Tinkle’s name with the same reverence around the Oregon State campus. Saturday’s 65-58 victory in the NCAA Midwest Region semifinal over No. 8 seed Loyola Chicago was the Beavers’ sixth in a row, every one of those carrying lose-and-you’re-done pressure.
They are a victory away from becoming the first 12 seed since the tournament was expanded in 1985 — the lowest seed ever — to reach the Final Four.
“Our team overall has really played calm, through this run and even the last month of league,” Tinkle told reporters on a postgame Zoom call. “We talked to them about keeping a free mind, playing hard, playing together. There’s so much trust in that locker room.
“Our guys never wavered. We had some hiccups along the way . . . the guys just bought in. My family made me a T-shirt, and they made one for our whole group, and they talked about on one side it said: ‘Pac-12 12th’. And then on the other side ‘March Madness 16th’. And they put my dad’s initials on my right sleeve. And I wore that. Normally I don’t do that. But I knew that, as good as Loyola is and as well-coached, I knew this was meant to be. I knew we were going to move on.”
What coaches learn if they work in the NCAA Tournament often enough is it’s more important to be talented than anything, and more important to be together than anything else, and in certain circumstances it can help to be different, but when all of that fails it’s essential to be flexible.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who entered his 20th Sweet 16 on Saturday, has had teams that fit each of those categories at various times, and a few who fit all of them. He has coached teams loaded with pros (Derrick Coleman, Rony Seikaly, Sherman Douglas), some so tight they seemed telepathic (the Red Autry-Mike Hopkins backcourt) and many that were strategically uncommon (every group of Orange that ever ran the Boeheim matchup zone).
His willingness to be flexible, though, showed in 2016, when the Orange trailed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 and Virginia in the Elite Eight and applied full-court presses in each to turn around those games and effectively steal another Final Four appearance. The Orange had entered as a No. 10 seed and were not at all a pressing team, but at a certain point they became a desperate team. They either could go home playing as they typically did or take a shot at something unexpected and maybe create an opportunity to advance.
They trailed Gonzaga by nine points with 6:28 left in the Midwest Region semifinal but forced four turnovers in the final 5:17 and won by a basket. Two days later, Virginia was ahead by 15 with 9:33 left, so the press came out earlier, and it both sped up the Cavaliers and forced a serious of turnovers that allowed Syracuse to quickly flip the game and win by six.
“The zone is something we’ve had in our pocket for a long time,” Beavers guard Ethan Thompson told reporters. “Our team has a lot of different defenses we’re capable of playing. The past couple of games, our man defense has been really nice, but I think that going to the zone — I don’t know if it gave us more life or threw them off guard a little bit. But just being able to have the discipline to go from man to zone, to another zone back to man, even in the same possession early, just having the discipline to do that is always something we have up our sleeve.”
Tinkle saw enough in Loyola’s upset of Illinois to recognize it would be a mistake to allow Loyola the comfort to run its “zoom” sets, which feature Cameron Krutwig at the top of the key with cutters running off him and generated an abundance of layups against college basketball’s No. 6 defensive team.
Tinkle believes in changing defenses when game situations dictate, trying to gain an advantage for his team. But the team’s run through the Pac-12 Tournament, which the Beavers had to win to reach the NCAAs, was accomplished mostly with man defense. So were the victories over Tennessee and Oklahoma State in the first two NCAA rounds. He resolved to play zone when it became prudent against Loyola, and that came early, within the first seven minutes. The Beavers had started much more poorly on offense than on D, but that decision seemed to improve their efficacy at both ends.
Within five minutes of the switch around the 13:50 mark, Loyola had scored just two points, both on free throws, and Oregon State had established a lead it never would relinquish. The matchup zone Tinkle employed for much of the game owes a lot to former Utah State coach Stew Morrill, which Tinkle acknowledged Saturday.
“I know they struggled with it for a while, and they’re so sharp they figured it out,” Tinkle said. “Our guys buy into that. We changed defenses coming out of timeouts, because they’re so good at dialing stuff up. And if our guys don’t respond and execute, then it’s all for naught.”
Loyola wound up shooting 33.3 percent from the field and hitting only 5 of 23 from 3-point range. There still were some occasions when the Ramblers were able to lure the back line of the zone up away from the rim and sneak a cutter along the baseline for a layup, but they converted only 41.9 percent of their 2-point attempts.
There was an occasion late in the game, when the Ramblers themselves went into desperation mode and applied a press, that a turnover by OSU center Roman Silva bounced around and wound up as an open left-wing 3 for Loyola guard Braden Norris with 49 second left. Had that shot connected, it would have been only a two-point Beavers lead, and Tinkle’s genius might not have seemed so impenetrable. Norris is a 41 percent deep shooter. He had made seven of his first 11 tries in this tournament. This one did not fall.
And Loyola, whose victory over top seed Illinois six days earlier had vaulted the team into favorite status in the Midwest Region, did.
“Our guys don’t want to stop playing,” Thompson said. “It’s an amazing feeling to just be a part of this success. Beaver Nation has waited a long time. When Coach Tinkle and the coaching staff got here, this was the goal in mind, to turn it into successful basketball. We’re here now.”