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Return of Moreland could be huge for Oregon State

As the Oregon State men's basketball team toiled through an up-and-down nonconference slate, coach Craig Robinson pointed toward the future.

Eric Moreland's Jan. 9 return will help solve the Beavers' problems, Robinson regularly reasoned. The suspended forward offers a lethal rim protector and a frenetic pace, much-needed assets for a team prone to sluggish defense.

That relief came two games early. Moreland, reinstated midweek when Robinson learned he misunderstood the length of the junior's punishment, proved key in Thursday night's 64-58 loss at No. 20 Colorado.

The NBA hopeful came off the bench to tally a block and a team-high 10 rebounds in 27 minutes. Though Moreland's only points came on a late tip-in, the Houston native provided an imposing interior presence. He used his lengthy frame to force off-kilter shots and clog the paint.

The energetic display helped the Beavers cobble together one of their most complete defensive performances of the season. They held the Buffaloes, who shot just 38.3 percent from the field, more than 13 points below their scoring average.

"I missed this team a lot," Moreland said. "There were a lot of emotions out there."

Robinson announced in October that Moreland would return from a violation of team rules three games into conference play, halfway through the regular season. Earlier this week, though, Robinson received a call from the compliance office saying that Moreland's suspension should've been measured in days, not games. He was eligible for OSU's Pac-12 opener.

"It was my mistake," Robinson said. "It was a nice phone call to get."

Moreland was relatively prepared for the unexpected return. After starting the season on the scout team, he began focusing on his defense with the first unit in practices early last month.

Of course, scrimmages and drills can't fully ready a player for game speed. Moreland said he spent much of Thursday's outing "trying to get back into a rhythm" with his teammates. His timing on screens and passes was off at times, a key reason he notched four turnovers.

Considering "they haven't played with Eric the whole first half of the season, I thought he fit in nicely," Robinson said. "If we don't turn the ball over and let them get offensive rebounds, I think this game might have been just a tad bit closer at the end."

For the Beavers to have a shot at their first .500 conference record since 1992-93, Moreland will likely need to assert himself more offensively. Guard Roberto Nelson, the conference's leading scorer, figures to continue facing a wave of double teams this season. And Colorado, which limited big men Devon Collier and Angus Brandt to a combined 12 points, showed that a talented Pac-12 frontcourt is capable of taking away OSU's next two weapons.

Whether or not Moreland can build off last season's 9.4 points per game, though, the Beavers are clearly a more intimidating matchup with their high-flying forward on the court. Robinson noted as much throughout nonconference play.

"We've been missing that all season and we knew he could do that," he said of Moreland's ability to crash the glass against the Buffaloes. "I love the way he didn't force much. He was trying to get in the flow. He was looking for other guys. He was terrific."

OSU will hope Moreland continues to wreak havoc on the boards against an improving Utah team today. With tenacious forward Jordan Loveridge leading the way, the Utes rank second the Pac-12 with a plus-10.4 rebounding margin. They also average a blistering 85.9 points per game, a daunting assignment for an Oregon State group that has owned the conference's worst scoring defense the past two seasons.

"We're a tough team so we're not going to lay down for anybody," Nelson said. "We can play with the best teams in not only the Pac-12, but the country."