Pac-12 preview: Oregon State University

This is the twelfth in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams for the upcoming season.

The good news for Oregon State is the bad news for everyone else: the team that roared to a 24-11 record, tied for second place in the Pac-12, played for the conference tournament championship and made it to the NCAA Tournament’s second round last season is the only team in the Pac that returns all five starters this year.

Sophomore guard Sydney Wiese (14.3 points, 4 assists per game), junior guard Jamie Wiesner (12.5 points, 5.3 rebounds per game), junior center Ruth Hamblin (9.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4 blocks per game), senior guard Ali Gibson (9 points per game) and junior forward Deven Hunter (8.8 points, 7.4 rebounds per game) are all back, as are four reserves. Three promising newcomers round out a solid roster that already has both players and coaches chomping at the bit to begin play.

“We’re excited for the upcoming season,” fifth-year coach Scott Rueck said. “Coming off the year we had last year, we know we have the experience to add to the talent we have on our roster. We have an incredible group of young women, and it feels great. They want to compete, they want to win and they expect to, and that’s a far cry from what we started with.”

Expectations for the Beavers seem to be high all the way around. Earlier this week media members picked OSU to finish third in the Pac-12. Rueck, who started rebuilding the program in 2010 with two players, said the team’s goal this season is still the same: improvement.

“I think this year’s focus is to be better than we were a year ago, and to get better every day,” he said. “Every coach in the world says that, but that’s where our focus has to be. Our team is determined to improve, and it’s evident in practice already. We left last season hungry, and that hunger has carried over into this season.”

Rueck said team members left “pained” after their NCAA Tournament exit, and their hunger has carried over into this year. Wiese agreed, and said players are working together as a team.

“Every player is important, first or last off the bench. Everybody has to bring their A game every day,” Wiese said. “(There are) no days off. We have to want it more than our opponents. We had a lot of fun last year, but we are trying to eliminate the mistakes and up our free throw percentage from last year.”

Joining the strong OSU core this season is junior guard Jen’Von’Ta Hill, a transfer from Hutchinson Community College. She averaged 11.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5 assists per game en route to the NJCAA Final Four. Freshman Alex Kalmbach played for state champion Bishop O’Dowd in Oakland, Calif. Another freshman, 6-foot-5 center Marie Gulich, hails from Germany, where she has played for several of her country’s national teams. Only two bench players from last year were lost.

It’s been a journey for Rueck from Division III George Fox University, where he guided them to a national championship, back to his alma mater. Injuries plagued the Beavers in his third season, but their potential began to shine the year after that. Last season the development of Canadian center Hamblin paced the team, as she set a school record with 141 season blocks and the second triple-double in OSU history.

“This hasn’t happened in a while in Corvallis,” Rueck said. “The word is spreading; there’s a buzz. Something special is going on. More and more people are going out of their way to make it to our campus.”

Last year OSU’s pre-conference schedule included a match up with Notre Dame – one which the Irish had to pull out towards the end. This year the Beavers take on #3 Tennessee Dec. 28. Rueck said he relishes such learning experiences.

“We saw what Notre Dame did for us, what it taught us, where we needed to go, showed us where we belong,” he said. “This is another opportunity to compete with the nation’s elite; the uncomfortable environments are where we grow.”

OSU also faces North Carolina before beginning Pac-12 play Jan. 3, at UCLA.