How Ruth Hamblin became perhaps the best pure center in college

Ruth Hamblin, who didn't begin playing basketball until high school, is the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year. Steven Bisig/USA TODAY Sports

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Asked which chores ranked as least desirable growing up on a cattle ranch in northern British Columbia, Ruth Hamblin struggled for a moment. Sure, cleaning out the barn, which meant lifting heavy manure in dark confines, wasn't exactly fun. Using a tractor to move feeders? That was always hard work. But chores are chores. Before and after school, the sun in both cases an infrequent companion for many months, they needed to get done. So she did them well.

Her hesitation hinted there wasn't much point in thinking about which ones would be nice to avoid.

It was only then that she remembered the hay bales. The cattle still needed to be fed during the long winters, so one of the chores was to free the hay wrapped in plastic layers. Except you can't just unwrap bales when the temperature hasn't climbed above freezing in weeks. You chisel through ice and the frozen covering.

"Basically you're an archaeologist in there trying to find the way," Hamblin lamented.

She prefaced the story with the sort of rueful laugh born of sudden recollection of past misery.

It was the sort of laugh, then, that is easy to imagine Pac-12 opponents offering years from now if pressed to name the basketball chore best avoided at all costs. At least the arenas in which Hamblin tests their willpower throughout the winter months are climate-controlled.

Hamblin came to basketball as an afterthought. Her loyalties even now are divided between defensive and orbital rotations, basketball balanced with engineering studies. None of that matters. If something needs to be done, it needs to be done to the best of her ability.

And the best of her abilities is better than any other center in college basketball. The 6-foot-6 reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year is literally the biggest reason Oregon State has a chance to follow the program's first conference title a season ago with a first Final Four appearance this time around.

"Ruth is someone who is going to bring excellence to whatever she does," Oregon State coach Scott Rueck said. "I've said she is the most efficient person I know, and I believe that. She gets more done in a day than anybody else I know because she can do so many different things.

"I think that's her background growing up on the farm and having a blue-collar background."

Most college basketball stars made a habit of playing H-O-R-S-E in their younger years. Hamblin rode one when she got home from school in Houston, British Columbia. Situated 12 hours north of Vancouver and a little more than a hundred miles as the crow flies from the Alaskan border, Houston is a town of a few thousand people that exists mostly because of the resources that surround it, from mining and forestry to the steelhead that brings tourists.

It wasn't until ninth grade, after a brief and unsatisfying foray a year earlier, that Hamblin even played basketball. The easily envisioned story of a tall kid uncomfortable and awkward in her body doesn't quite work here. Years of riding and physical labor on the farm allowed her to grow comfortably into her frame. (Even now, as if aware of the easy stereotypes for a tall female who picked up the game late, Rueck goes out of his way to note her agility and athleticism.) But just because she didn't trip over her own feet didn't make her any less raw on the court.

By the 11th grade, when her future coach first saw her, she was on a provincial team comprised of some of the best talent British Columbia had to offer. Rueck won a national title at Division III George Fox with a team built around a 6-4 center who arrived at that school as a project. So even though Hamblin came off the bench behind younger, more polished players, Rueck liked what he saw. He also liked what he heard about Hamblin's commute. For weeks on-end she missed school on Fridays so that she and her dad could drive the 12 hours to Vancouver to practice with the provincial team. Come Sunday evening, they would make the return drive, arriving home just in time for her to get to school Monday morning.

"There's a level of commitment there," Rueck said. "That's a very mature perspective and a person that has a great desire."

It was conscious commitment. It's tempting to wonder if one of the best players in the country might have slipped completely through the cracks if not for a coach from the University of Northern British Columbia encouraged her to try out for the provincial team. But Oregon State and the rest of college basketball almost proceeded blissfully unaware of the potential star anyway. As the sport became more than just another of her activities at a school with a graduating class of 10 people, she wondered if it was what she really wanted to do. Instead of trying out for the provincial team in 10th grade, a year before Rueck saw her, she thought about giving up basketball entirely.

"When this all started happening, I got super overwhelmed with it," Hamblin said. "I had my life planned out -- I was going to go be a vet and all this stuff, and I never had considered this. Now it was like the next 10 years of my life could possibly [be committed to basketball]. I'm an all-in or all-out type of person, so if I was going to play basketball, I was going to play basketball."

She changed her mind about quitting and asked her dad to make one of those long drives so she could try out.

"Defensively .. she's as good as anyone anywhere in timing, angles, discipline, anticipation ... she's still playing catch-up [offensively], which is scary and exciting, both, because it means the sky is the limit for her." Oregon State coach Scott Rueck on Ruth Hamblin

That unwillingness to compromise standards is only underscored by her academic path. There aren't many engineering majors on Top 25 rosters, the demands of one difficult to square with the demands of the other. Yet she earned academic All-America honors in addition to those of the basketball variety a season ago, her focus these days in aerospace engineering. There are times, guard Sydney Wiese noted, when teammates will ask in mock exasperation if Hamblin can just stop for a moment and come to the movies. But they understand.

"If she needs help [with school] -- we wouldn't be able to help her," Wiese deadpanned. "But if she needs help getting some place, like a ride, or whatever she needs, we'll be there for her."

All that's left is to convince someone who builds rockets that basketball isn't rocket science.

"The thing that we've had to do with her is to simplify things because she wants it to be a calculus problem when we're just dealing with addition here," Rueck said. "It's not as hard as she wants to make it sometimes -- it's maybe just monotonous, in that you have to do the same skill over and over and over until you perfect it and grow your confidence."

The result is a player that few teams in the country can counter. From the NBA down, basketball is in the midst of an infatuation, some would say evolution, that centers on playing without, well, a center. Small ball is all the rage. Back-to-the-basket posts are rumored to be all but extinct.

His own team bolstered this season by 6-5 Georgetown transfer Natalie Butler, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma spoke recently about how the look of the sport has changed.

"Everybody had a 6-5 kid who could really play," Auriemma told the Hartford Courant of years past. "Now, those players don't exist, so if you have one, you have something nobody else has."

"Ruth is going to bring excellence to whatever she does. I've said she is the most efficient person I know ... she gets more done in a day than anybody else I know because she can do so many different things." Scott Rueck

For Oregon State, that's someone who ranked sixth in the nation in blocks a season ago while averaging barely two fouls per game. She alters outcomes solely with her defensive presence. But the team's perimeter-oriented offense, which attempted 719 3-pointers and ranked in the top 10 percent of Division I in scoring, also works in part because of the one person in the middle.

"Defensively, I believe she has caught up [from her late start], and I believe she's as good as anyone anywhere in timing, angles, discipline, anticipation," Rueck said. "Offensively I think she has a ways to go in terms of her feel for the game. That only comes with time. That's ahead of her. ...

"I believe she's still playing catch-up [offensively], which is scary and exciting, both, because it means the sky is the limit for her."

Except that if someone whose dream job is working on a project like the Hubble telescope has her way, even that limit might not hold. When she was home briefly this summer around trips to Italy with Oregon State and Asia with Team Canada, Hamblin and her family headed for even more remote country hours outside Houston to check on cattle. So far away from any light pollution at night, the heavens lit up. What was out there beyond home had always intrigued her growing up, whether "there" was the cosmos above or more terrestrial territory beyond Houston.

She wanted to explore. She just wasn't sure what door would open to begin her journey.

It turned out to be a door to a basketball gym.

"I honestly could see her going to Pluto," Wiese said of where life will take Hamblin. "I feel like she'll be the first person on Pluto, as well as having a family and an established home probably somewhere in Canada.

"But she's definitely going to change the world."

If it needs doing, don't put it past her.