Beavers should have 'a really fun year'
CORVALLIS — Some of the experts are already weighing in on the 2019-20 women's college basketball season. ESPN has Oregon State pegged as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a top-eight team overall. NCAA.com ranks OSU sixth nationally.
How does Scott Rueck feel about such high expectations?
"We've had them here for a long time now," said Rueck, who has taken the Beavers to six straight NCAA Tournament appearances and four consecutive Sweet 16s, including the 2016 Final Four. "It's just part of what everybody wants here.
"I'd be real disappointed if there weren't high expectations. That would mean I wasn't getting the job done. It's fun to surprise people, but I'd rather be one of the ones people are most excited to play against."
Oregon State comes out of the chute with one of those red-letter games — the U.S. national team coming into Gill Coliseum on Nov. 4. The U.S. team that will be attempting to claim its seventh straight Olympic gold medal in Tokyo next summer.
Team USA will be playing at Stanford, Oregon State, Oregon and Texas A&M in a four-game exhibition swing.
"I'm super excited to be playing against the best team in the world," said Rueck, entering his 10th season at the OSU helm. "It will be one of those nights where you'll remember for the rest of your life that you were there — the night Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird and Alisha Gray played in Gill Coliseum.
"This is the Dream Team for women's basketball, especially because of where they're at in their careers. This is most likely their last Olympic run together. To play against them in an Olympic year is incredible. I'm excited for our players to be able to say, 'I went toe to toe with this team on our homecourt in front of our fans.'"
Oregon State loses starting forward Katie McWilliams and reserve center Joanna Grymek from the 2018-19 team that went 26-8 — 17-1 at home — and placed third in the Pac-12. Everyone else returns along with a pair of highly touted freshman posts — 6-6 Kennedy Brown of Derby, Kansas, and 6-3 Taylor Jones of Forney, Texas.
Last year's team had minimal inside presence, with 6-1 Maddie Washington starting often at center. This year, with the addition of Brown, Taylor and fellow freshman Jelena Mitrovic — a 6-9 native of Serbia who is still rehabbing from July knee surgery — Rueck anticipates a return to the power attacks of yesteryear with players such as Ruth Hamblin and Marie Gulich in the middle.
"My hope is to go back to playing big," Rueck said. "We can be a little more imposing around the rim and get back to what we've usually been."
Some of Oregon State's defensive numbers last year were excellent. Opponents shot .360 from the field — 18th in the country — and .298 from 3-point range. But OSU forced only 8.8 turnovers a game, last among the nation's 349 Division 1 teams.
"Last year was the weakest defensive team I've had in my time at OSU," Rueck said. "Due to our depth, this team has a different ability to defend. During our August trip to Italy, we impacted possessions differently than we were able to last season."
Returning starters Washington, Mikayla Pivec, Destiny Slocum and Taya Corosdale will be joined by the three freshman "bigs," promising sophomore guard Jasmine Simmons and Kat Tudor, the sharpshooting senior guard who missed most of last season with ACL knee surgery.
"It's a deep and versatile team," Rueck said. "This team can play a variety of ways."
Pivec and Slocum are returning all-Pac-12 performers and the squad leaders. Pivec gained valuable international experience as a starter on the U.S. team that won a silver medal at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, last summer. Rueck considers the 5-10 senior — who averaged 15.2 points and a team-high 9.2 rebounds and shot .526 from the field and .417 from 3-point range last year — one of the best all-around players in women's college basketball.
"Mik has taken her game to a different level," Rueck said. "Her confidence is at an all-time high. USA Basketball hit at the right time for her. She was so determined to make that team and took her training to another level."
Pivec returned from Peru in time to join the Beavers for their August excursion to Italy, where they went 4-0 against Italian pro teams and enjoyed 10 days of bonding experience.
"Her intensity in the month of August set the tone for us for this season," Rueck said. "She didn't love how we finished last season (a 61-44 loss to Louisville in the Sweet 16). Now it's her turn to lead — Mik and (fellow seniors) Kat, Maddy and Janessa Thropay. She has a determination to her that's special."
Corosdale, a 6-3 junior who will be in her third year as a starter, took a step back statistically last season from her freshman year, averaging 6.9 points while shooting .382 from the field and .296 from 3-point range.
"We didn't have the inside presence last year, and there was more of a burden on Taya to be a playmaker," Rueck said. "I see her attacking the basket more this year. Next step for her is to be that aggressive every minute that she plays, where she becomes a go-to player."
Rueck hopes the 6-foot Tudor — a career .423 3-point shooter and .820 foul shooter — will be ready for the Nov. 9 regular-season opener against Cal Irvine in Oregon State's first game in the Women's NIT. If not, she's close. Tudor is a senior but has applied for a medical redshirt year in 2020-21.
"Kat is in all our shooting drills and is looking great," Rueck said. "She has the normal bounce to her step back."
Once she's back, Tudor will be an important weapon off the bench along with junior Aleah Goodman, last season's Pac-12 Sixth Player of the Year. The 5-9 La Salle Prep grad, who was a member of Team USA's three-on-three team that played internationally last summer, shot .394 from beyond the arc and .935 from the line in 2018-19.
The 5-10 Simmons played sparingly as a freshman but was a member of the Australian team that beat the U.S. to win gold at the World University Games in Naples last summer. The athletic Simmons should take on a bigger role for the Beavers this season.
"'Jaz' had the experience of playing with some great players and the comfort of being back with her (country's) group," Rueck said. "When she joined us in August, she brought so much energy. She ran in the open court and shot well from the perimeter."
Brown is Oregon State's first McDonald's All-American recruit and a Jordan Brand Classic participant as well.
"Kennedy has a versatility to her game that is uncommon for someone so tall," Rueck said. "She's as comfortable facing up as she is in the post. The 3-point shot is a staple of her game. She's an amazing passer with a mind that understands the game. She fits in well at the 4 and 5 spots."
Jones might have made the McDonald's All-America Game, also, if not for an injury. She was a five-star recruit ranked as the nation's No. 15 prospect by Prospects Nation.
"Taylor is aggressive and physical," Rueck said. "She has a mature game for her age. She's learning what she can and can't get away with. She's 6-3, but her wingspan is as if she's 6-7. She has broad shoulders and long arms and legs. She plays much bigger than she is."
The 6-9 Mitrovic averaged 11.7 points and 11.3 rebounds at the 2018 U18 European Championships and was rated the No. 3 prospect in Europe for her age group. She has not yet been cleared for full-contact drills.
"Jelena is regaining her strength and is going to be able to play at some point," Rueck said. "I believe she'll make an impact for us this season. I'm anxious to get her back. She's a fantastic player."
So is 6-9 Andrea Aquino, the Paraguay native who sat out her freshman season due to an undisclosed heart condition. Aquino, who played her senior season at Ribet Academy in Los Angeles, was the seventh-rated prospect in the nation in 2017-18, highest ever for an OSU women's basketball recruit.
Aquino was able to do shooting and ball handling drills but was not allowed to participate in full-contact activities last season. She sat on the OSU bench for every game and cheered on her teammates. Aquino made the trip to Italy, too. But her situation has not changed.
"Andrea sent a message out to everyone last week that she's not (medically) cleared," said Rueck, who admires her spirit. "Everybody understands how hard it is for her. Basketball is what she loves. She's not getting a chance to play, yet she brings this amazing attitude and energy. She loves this community and our program. She keeps bringing it every day."
Is there hope that Aquino will able to play at some point later this season, or next season?
"I don't know," Rueck said.
The schedule is challenging, with Team USA, an early-season visit to Miami — a 25-win team a year ago — and the WNIT in November. It's the first time in the WNIT for the Beavers, who are guaranteed three home games and would get a fourth if they win three and reach the championship game in the 16-team event. OSU would play host to the fourth game on Nov. 17, unless the opponent is Oklahoma, the only team seeded higher than the Beavers.
Oregon State has plenty of company among Pac-12 teams with high aspirations. Oregon is the consensus favorite to win the national championship. Stanford and UCLA are expected to be top-20 teams.
"It's the best conference in the country, there's no doubt about it," Rueck said. "Every night is a war. It's going to be epic."
The addition of Brown and Jones to the veterans has Rueck excited.
"They're picking things up quickly," he said. "The culture of our program is so strong that it pulls them along and makes them feel included. They are freshmen, but they're playing like experienced players."
Rueck likes his on-court leadership.
"There are very few inspirational speeches needed by the coaches," he said. "The leaders know what they want and have made it clear."
There's no reason, Rueck believes, that the Beavers can't fulfill those high expectations.
"I look at this group and it's hard to see a ceiling," he said. "It's a focused group that wants to do great things. They have a blast together. It's a tight team, where the players all care about each other. That's what every coach wants. The team thrives on competition. That's a great sign.
"We're going to have more of an inside presence. We should shoot the ball well from the outside. We're attacking well off the bounce. We transition well. And there is a commitment to the defensive end that is a notch up from a year ago. Those things add up to what should be a really fun year."
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