CORVALLIS — The story line slowly emerged through nonconference play.
With point guard Challe Barton struggling to impact the box score, Oregon State supporters began campaigning for backup Hallice Cooke in online message boards. They felt strongly that the freshman should unseat his older counterpart in the starting lineup.
Coach Craig Robinson mostly dismissed the chatter, expressing his confidence in Barton whenever reporters broached the subject. After Saturday's 80-69 loss at Utah, though, Robinson's tone was markedly different.
"It's possible," he said of shaking up his point guard rotation for Thursday's Pac-12 home opener against Stanford. "I want to watch the tape and see who's doing what. Every week is an audition."
Barton has been a nonfactor much of his first season as the Beavers' regular starter. The junior seldom looks for his own shot, instead deferring to the team's more dynamic scorers. Barton has reached double-digit points only once in 2013-14, and he has attempted more than three field goals in just five of his 14 appearances.
Such minimal offensive production would be easier forgiven if he became more of a facilitator. Barton's 1.8 assists per game are bested by forward Devon Collier, a big man who rarely leaves the key.
Earlier this season, Robinson justified Barton's paltry assist totals by pinpointing the Swede's knack for the "hockey assist." He often passes the ball to the player credited with the dime, Robinson said, an aspect of the game the sixth-year coach believes is underappreciated.
A humming offense buoyed Robinson's roundabout reasoning. OSU entered last month's Diamond Head Classic averaging 84.4 points per game, third in the Pac-12.
But the buckets have dwindled in recent weeks. The Beavers' production has dipped more than seven points as they've dropped four of their past six games. OSU didn't top the 70-point mark in each of its first two conference outings, largely a product of an ineffective frontcourt.
Collier and center Angus Brandt, who entered the Pac-12 slate averaging a combined 30.9 points per game, totaled 12 in losses to Colorado and the Utes. Part of the issue has been a parade of double teams down low. Another part of it, though, has been poor post-entry passes.
"It was just too hard for us to execute on offense," Robinson said Saturday.
Promoting Cooke could prove a worthwhile solution. The rookie, after all, leads Barton in nearly every statistical category despite playing about three fewer minutes per game. He often sparks the Beavers' second unit with hustle plays and three pointers.
Though OSU benefits having a potent shooter off the bench, it's possible Cooke would bring necessary energy to a first five prone to sluggish starts.
"I think we have to get over the hump," said Cooke, who has notched double-digit point totals in two of his past three appearances. "I think it will come in time."
Saturday's defeat perhaps provided enough evidence for Robinson to give Cooke his first college start. The Union City, N.J., native entered the game early in the first half and soon began draining threes. A Cooke trey cut the Beavers' deficit to one little more than five minutes into the frame. A few possessions later, he spotted up beyond the arc again and secured a 17-15 OSU lead.
Cooke finished with four assists and a career-high 14 points. Barton, meanwhile, tallied six points and a lone dime.
"I love having Hallice behind me," Barton said in early December. "I know if I'm playing bad, he could come in and step up."
Cooke has been doing that with such regularity Robinson may have to cede to the fan base's growing campaign. He may choose the first-year guy over the veteran when crafting his lineup for the Cardinal matchup.