They didn't know the job would be halfway done by the time they arrived on campus.
When Oregon State recruited the two top-100 prospects, the Beavers were coming off a season in which they didn't win a conference game. Only later would Oregon State emerge as one of the nation's biggest surprises in the first season of Craig Robinson's coaching tenure.
Instead of leading a rebuilding project, Cunningham and Nelson are beginning their college careers as part of the Pac-10's fastest-rising program. Cunningham said the Beavers are hoping to reach the NCAA tournament and finish first or second in the Pac-10 this season.
"I feel that we can achieve that goal," Cunningham said.
That statement reflects the dramatic changes in Oregon State's expectations since Robinson began pursuing his potential backcourt of the future.
Both players insist they weren't familiar with Oregon State at the start of the recruiting process. Frankly, that might have been a good thing for the Beavers.
When Robinson arrived at Oregon State in the spring of 2008, he inherited a team that arguably was in the worst shape of any program in the six major conferences. Oregon State had gone a combined 17-46 - including a 3-33 mark in Pac-10 competition - over the previous two seasons.
So how did Robinson manage to land a recruiting class that featured Cunningham (the No. 76 prospect in the nation) and Nelson (No. 78)? The easy answer is to credit Robinson's family connections. Although he led Oregon State to the College Basketball Invitational title last season, Robinson remains best known as the brother-in-law of President Barack Obama.
The problem with that argument is that Nelson and Cunningham said the Obama ties mattered little in their decisions to attend Oregon State. In fact, both said they didn't know Robinson was related to Obama when Oregon State began recruiting them, back when the coach's brother-in-law was merely a U.S. senator. It turns out the leader of the free world might not even be the most persuasive member of his own family.
"He never talks about it," said Nelson, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard from Santa Barbara, Calif. "That's the thing: If I were the brother-in-law of President Obama, I'd be telling people. He didn't use that at all. When he was talking to me, he just told me about himself and what he was interested in about taking the team to the next level."
Frequently, the conversations between Robinson and Nelson didn't focus on basketball.
"He just basically talked about life," Nelson said. "He didn't really talk about basketball much. He just wanted to get to know me as a person, not [just] from a basketball standpoint."
Nelson selected Oregon State over the likes of Tennessee, USC and Washington in the fall of 2008, before Oregon State had played its first game under Robinson.
Cunningham's path to the Pacific Northwest was much more circuitous. Cunningham, a 6-3 point guard, committed to Arizona State in the fall of his junior season at San Leandro (Calif.) High, but the two sides mutually agreed to part ways shortly before the fall signing period of his senior year.
Oregon State was the first school to contact him after things fell through at Arizona State. Cunningham visited Oregon State's campus Jan. 4 to watch a 62-58 overtime victory over USC that snapped the Beavers' 21-game Pac-10 losing streak. He committed to Oregon State later that week and signed with the Beavers in April.
"Jared is a big guard who is a leader," Robinson said at the time of the signing. "He is an athletic player who is able to score and likes to get everyone involved."
Left out of the dance
Oregon State hasn't played in the NCAA tournament since 1990, which marks the longest drought of any Pac-10 school. Here's a look at the teams from each of the six major conferences with the longest NCAA droughts.
Nelson and Cunningham headline a recruiting class that also features a trio of three-star prospects: 6-10 center Angus Brandt, 6-7 center Joe Burton and 6-7 small forward Rhys Murphy.
Both guards have enough talent to step in immediately. Cunningham's ability to play either guard position could help fill the void created by the departure of point guard Rickey Claitt. Nelson should provide instant offense for a team that averaged just 60.8 points per game last season.
"Nelson is one of those guys who's just wired to score," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "He has deep range. He's not afraid to take a shot. He's one of those guys where you just sort of have to put up with some bad shots here and there to get the best out of him because he has a unique ability to make tough shots. He has a total scorer's mentality."
Oregon State's five freshmen join a roster that includes five players who made at least 14 starts for the team that went 18-18 last season. The blend of youth and experience could help Oregon State make a major move during a season of transition in the Pac-10. Of the 10 players who earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors last year, only California guards Patrick Christopher and Jerome Randle are back this season.
Of course, the freshmen must prove they can fit seamlessly into a roster that worked together well enough to win a postseason tournament last year. The newcomers also must adjust to Robinson's Princeton-style offense, a demanding system that rewards teamwork and unselfishness.
The rebuilding has begun
Oregon State freshmen Jared Cunningham and Roberto Nelson said they signed with the Beavers to help turn around the program, but their older teammates already started the process last season by winning the College Basketball Invitational. Here's a look at Oregon State's record the past four seasons.
Jay John/ Kevin Mouton*
(NOTE: Oregon State was 6-12 before John was replaced by Mouton.)
The teams that have run the "Princeton offense" in the past generally have depended on discipline and teamwork to compete with programs that boasted superior talent. How will it work with a highly touted freshman class that boasts two top-100 recruits? Cunningham doesn't foresee any problems.
Cunningham said he chose Oregon State in part because of the system it runs. "I feel I can fit in," he said. "The Princeton offense is really good. I can see myself being a leader in it."
Meyer also can envision the incoming recruits adapting well to the offense, with its back-door cuts and constant motion.
"The better athletes you have, the better the Princeton offense works," Meyer said. "The unique challenge of the Princeton offense is recruiting higher-level athletes, but the more athletic they are, the better."
Maybe the typical top-100 prospect wouldn't play for a team that runs the Princeton offense. Then again, Cunningham and Nelson showed they're anything but typical when they agreed to consider Oregon State.
"I know Coach Robinson is a good coach who puts players in positions where they can excel," Nelson said. "I knew they were in for something good. I wanted to be part of something up-and-coming. I wanted to come in and help turn a program around."
Cunningham and Nelson's teammates already have started the turnaround process. Now it's up to them to help finish the job.