State of Oregon: Hoops hotbed again

It is, Mandy Close admits, like the proverbial story about the catch of a lifetime, the one in which the fish grows bigger and the catch more legendary with each telling.

Not the details of the play, mind you. Those are right there in the official record, forever immune to embellishment. There really were nine seconds left when Oregon State's Tiffany Ducker rebounded an Oregon miss and made an outlet pass to Close in the waning moments of the game on Jan. 25, 2006. And Close, her team behind by a point, really did drive the length of the court and, with two seconds remaining, hit a layup at the same time she was fouled.

She hit the free throw, and the Beavers really beat the Ducks 63-61.

What has changed in years of spinning the story -- and the story still is spun when Close and former teammates get together -- is the backdrop against which it took place. When the scene plays in her mind now, there is a something close to a capacity crowd going crazy right along with the teammates who mobbed her after the highlight of a career.

When told the actual crowd was recorded as 3,021 people, double the average attendance at home that season but not quite enough to bring the roof down, the brief silence on the other end of the line somehow sounds like air let out of a balloon. She didn't really think Gill Coliseum was full, but...

"The fish was this big," she joked.

Yet when Close walked onto the same court at Gill recently, sneakers traded for something more stylish in her role as an assistant coach at her alma mater, the stands really were close to being full to support a team ranked in the top 10 in the nation. It had been nearly two decades since a bigger crowd than the 7,652 fans in attendance that day had shown up for a women's game, even a "Civil War" rivalry game against Oregon. And it was barely more than four years since not even a fifth of that number showed up, perhaps mostly out of morbid curiosity, to watch Scott Rueck coach his first game after taking what to many looked like the worst coaching job in America.

This fish won't need to get bigger when people tell the story of a program reborn.

"It just goes to show that the state of Oregon, Corvallis specifically, will get behind a team that puts a great product on the floor, who plays together, who plays the right style and ultimately is successful," Close said. "I thought that was just amazing when we came out from the locker room and you look up and the entire coliseum is almost full. ... I just smiled and thought, 'Wow, what a ways this program has come.'

"Scott has done a great job of laying a solid foundation for years to come."

On the other side of the court, his team a loser by 33 points that day and 29 points two days later at home, first-year Oregon coach Kelly Graves is trying to engineer a similar turnaround, if marginally less severe on the scale of difficulty. If Graves succeeds -- and, though he loathed the modifier, he made mid-major Gonzaga the most nationally relevant women's basketball program in the Pacific Northwest -- a state so recently cut adrift from the mainstream of women's basketball could soon, remarkably soon, be among its epicenters. Oregon, the state, is one of the most interesting places on the basketball map these days.

Resurgence in the Pacific Northwest

Oregon State's 2006 win against Oregon secured by Close's heroics in the final seconds was in some ways the last good time for a long time in Corvallis. The Beavers lost the rematch against the Ducks a few days later in Eugene. Oregon State went on to make the WNIT and win a first-round game that season, but the record slipped to 9-19 the following season and 12-19 the season after that. One more winning season and one more trip to the WNIT proved to be a mirage, and by the conclusion of the 2009-10 season, the program imploded under then-coach LaVonda Wagner.

By the time Rueck interviewed for the job made vacant by Wagner's dismissal after allegations of intimidation and abuse, only two returning scholarship players remained. One of that pair left that summer. Rueck's team took the court that first season with five scholarship players and a collection of walk-ons. They had a future professional, but Courtney Wetzel, who made two appearances for the basketball team that season as a late roster addition, earns those paychecks on the fields of the National Women's Soccer League.

Upon landing his first Division I job after 14 years at Division III George Fox University, people close to Rueck congratulated him. And told him they were scared for him.

At George Fox, a school of fewer than 4,000 students a half-hour south of Portland, Rueck had a budget of $7,000 with which to hire his lone assistant, no other adults on staff to manage, and few people beyond the limits of Newburg, Oregon, who knew or cared how his teams fared. But he was also in some ways a perfect candidate for the OSU job, and not just because he had applied previously when the school hired Wagner or had fond memories of the Gary Payton era from his own days as a student at Oregon State. Sure, he didn't have experience coaching or recruiting Division I basketball players. Fortunately for him, Oregon State was barely a Division I program.

When just getting someone, anyone, to commit was a victory, he could recruit the players he wanted to recruit. When the expectation was for little more than abject embarrassment in as competitive a conference as the Pac-12, he could coach the way he wanted, too. And in what might well be the greatest feat of his entire career, no matter how many banners his teams bring back to Gill in the future, that first team somehow won nine games and kept the final margin within single digits in 14 of 21 losses. An assistant coach with Division I experience might have needed time to figure out what he or she wanted to do and how to go about doing that. Rueck was and remains a young coach, but after 14 years at George Fox, including a national championship, he knew what he wanted to do. Even if he didn't know whether it would work against the Stanfords of the world.

"I got to try different things," Rueck said of George Fox. "I came in [to Oregon State] with a philosophy that I truly believed in, and I think that's such an advantage to have all those years of just practice. So coming in, I knew what we needed. Well, we were fortunate to get the pieces we needed. If you look at our team, it's a complete team. I think we're as traditional a team as there is. We have a true center, a true point guard, we shoot the ball ... we have rebounders, it's a team that is committed to defense. I wouldn't say we're overly athletic, but we counter that with, I think, a pretty high level of skill and discipline.

"This group is kind of what we envisioned when we got here as what we would want as a team."

The new program took chances on players other Pac-12 teams didn't see in the same light, if they saw them at all. The lone senior this season, Ali Gibson, was going to play in the Pac-12 only if she chose Oregon State; a starter, she leads the team in steals, has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio, and can knock down a 3-pointer. When Rueck saw Ruth Hamblin, a 6-foot-6 raw talent from a town a thousand miles north of Vancouver, he was reminded of a player named Kristen Shielee, a 6-foot-4 project who barely played initially at George Fox but was named most valuable player in the Division III Final Four as a senior. Why couldn't he pull off the same trick in Division I?

"She's someone who can shoot the ball from anywhere, literally, and handles the ball like a point guard. She has great vision that's just continuing to get better, and now she's filling out and gaining strength, which has always been the knock on her." Oregon State coach Scott Rueck on sophomore Sydney Wiese

But at some point, no matter how good the coach or how strong the system, someone needs to take a chance on the program. Jamie Weisner, a top-50 recruit in the class of 2012, did that, which meant four years of a player who had not only a relentless motor but also the ability to score points in the Pac-12. One year later, Oregon State signed another top-100 recruit, Sydney Wiese, a 6-foot point guard who led the team in scoring, assists and 3-pointers last season as a freshman, a season that ended with 24 wins, including 13 in conference, and a trip to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Partly because she was the final piece, but also because she is the best piece, Wiese made the Beavers nationally relevant.

"She has this just quiet confidence," Rueck said. "Some people refer to it as swagger, but if you know Syd, she's not that. She has no ego at all. None. She's the most humble kid, but she just loves to compete. She's worked so hard over the years that she believes in her game as much as anyone I've ever been around. She's someone who can shoot the ball from anywhere, literally, and handles the ball like a point guard. She has great vision that's just continuing to get better, and now she's filling out and gaining strength, which has always been the knock on her."

Oregon State didn't start actively recruiting Wiese until her junior year of high school in Arizona, well after schools with NCAA tournament credentials, and even Final Four credentials, first contacted her. She liked the connection she had with the coaches, liked the geography (she also considered Oregon) and liked the idea of being an underdog.

Barely two years after Oregon State had one returning scholarship player, it got a commitment from Wiese.

"I could never really explain it to them," she said of the reaction people at home had about her decision. "I just kind of had to prove it to them, prove why I decided to come here. I've had the time of my life here the past couple of years, and I'm excited for what the future has in store."

Graves rebuilds Ducks

Players at Oregon might well be excited about the future, too. In part because it isn't the present. The blowout rivalry losses aside, there have been good moments, most recently a win at UCLA, but the first season since Graves replaced Paul Westhead has been a challenge for a coach used to winning and a team not used to him.

"You have to work your butt off for Kelly," said Lexi Bando, a Eugene native who nonetheless committed to Gonzaga but reversed course when Graves left. "You can't come into practice 50 percent, you can't go into games 50 percent. He wants everything done 100 percent. And if you aren't going 100 percent, he'll tell you -- he's told me many times. He just likes people to play with heart, and defense is huge for him. I think that's what he lives off. He loves great defenders."

Which meant that while Oregon was hardly the worst job in America when the school opted not to renew Westhead's contract, the on-court situation was less than ideal for Graves. Defense, at least in its most commonly recognizable forms, was never what Westhead's run-and-gun approach -- made most famous perhaps by his Loyola Marymount men's teams with Bo Kimble and the late Hank Gathers -- was about. Including schools reclassifying to Division I, there were 349 teams in women's college basketball a season ago. None allowed more points per game than Oregon. And 325 of them finished with a better field goal defense. That was to some degree intentional, and there were teams -- DePaul, Wright State -- that not only won but also made the NCAA tournament by pushing tempo to somewhat lesser degrees.

But the style, and a roster constructed for its niches, is foreign to how the new coach wants to play.

"It has been a fun challenge but a difficult challenge to just kind of reteach the game," said Graves, who met his wife in Oregon and has a vacation home there, and asserted the job in Eugene was the only one that would have convinced him to leave Spokane. "I'm a cerebral coach, in terms of I love cerebral players, high basketball IQ players who you can do different things with. And this [Westhead] system is so unique that you don't have to think so much. I don't mean that as a negative because they're trying, they are really trying. But it's difficult because it's not ingrained in them."

Junior Jillian Alleyne liked to run, which was part of the allure of playing for Westhead. She liked knowing that the ball was supposed to find her if it wasn't airborne for a 3-point shot; as the rim-running post, she was key to the system. Rebound, run, shoot. Who wouldn't think that sounds fun? But thinking three moves ahead, when the point of the previous system was that two moves were one too many? That hasn't been as much fun. Graves will tell you there is no player on whom he is harder than Alleyne (and she will attest to as much). But he also says there is no person on the team of whom he has a higher opinion.

Graves dismissed Chrishae Rowe before the season for a violation of teams rules. Rowe, who averaged 21.6 points per game last season and was a higher-ranked recruit than Wiese in the same class, is now at Kentucky. For better or worse, Graves sent a message that his plan was about the long haul. That starts with players who will likely never see the payoff but who can set a tone.

"Winning's great; it is awesome," Alleyne said. "UConn, you know, they do it every day, day in and day out. But it's really about being a part of something special and knowing I helped pioneer a program into what it is today. And I know it's going to be more years down the road where Oregon will become an elite school, but to know you were kind of, like, that baseline and that pioneer, that's huge to me and something I will carry with me forever."

Should it happen, that moment will be not unlike the one when Oregon State, which had already won in a cathedral of college basketball when it beat North Carolina in Carmichael Arena, took the floor against Tennessee in Knoxville's Thompson-Boling Arena. Not as pilgrims looking to genuflect but as a team that felt it had just as much right to its orange as the Lady Vols. Tennessee won 74-63, but the visitor left on equal footing with a program that has come to the Pacific Northwest and plundered talent as it pleases.

"It's one of those experiences that you'll never forget for the rest of your life," Wiese said. "You have 11,000 fans all cheering against you, and you play into that. I remember there was a time I got fouled and they were all booing -- and it was obviously a foul, but they were still booing -- and I just started clapping like, 'Yes, keep booing, keep it going, I love it.'"

So the terms are set. Washington, revitalized under Kevin McGuff and now Mike Neighbors, looms as a presence to the north. Gonzaga, which in making three consecutive Sweet 16 appearance did what only Stanford and USC ever did out of the Pac-12, doesn't appear ready to wilt with new coach Lisa Fortier.

But at the moment, the region is chasing Oregon State, most notably the school just down the road with all the Nike branding. Graves said the writing was on the wall at Gonzaga, that the landscape of college sports meant he couldn't compete against Pac-12 programs for the kind of recruits that get to Final Fours. That the next Courtney Vandersloot wouldn't be able to resist the bigger stage.

Now he needs to convince that player to come to Oregon instead of Oregon State. The teams play twice a season. The Civil War never ends.

"I have seen them out on the road recruiting," Close said. "I think they're doing a good job of getting in the gym and making connections. I think their staff is good, and I think that they have in place, obviously with the resources that Oregon has, a good foundation for future recruiting. So yeah, they're definitely coming up, and I'm sure that they're going to be battling with us for some in-state recruits, and I look forward to that challenge. I think we have a great place here in Corvallis; I think Oregon State has a lot to offer.

"And, obviously, winning helps us a lot."

Not that anyone is keeping score.