Oregon State Beavers (4-6)
In the discussion about the most improved women's basketball programs over the last two years, it's difficult not to talk about Oregon State.
What Scott Rueck has done with the Beavers program over the last couple of seasons has been among the best stories in women's basketball, not just because they played with a lot of heart when almost everyone counted them out but because they finished 9-9 last season, tied for fifth in conference play.
In this season's preseason media poll, no further improvement was expected from Oregon State - they were picked to finish fifth again. But that selection was the highest OSU had ever been selected in the preseason poll since its inception in 1999, marking something of a milestone moment that's a testament to how far Rueck has brought the program. And with four teams ranked in the national top 25 entering Pac-12 conference play, that puts Oregon State just beneath the conference's growing elite.
Yet without senior Sage Indendi, who is out for the year due to ankle surgery, did Oregon State live up to the expectations that media had for them over the past couple seasons during non-conference play?
Four Factors statistics for Oregon State during non-conference play.
Efficiency statistics for Oregon State during non-conference play.
Narrative description: A balanced and slow paced team that can struggle to score at times, but makes up for it with strong rebounding on both ends of the floor to limit opponents' second chance opportunities and create them for themselves. Their scoring struggles are compounded by their turnover problem, which hurts them quite a bit as a slow-paced team.
SOS: 53.23 (93rd nationally)
Upset wins: N/A
Upset losses: vs. Sacramento State
MVP: Ruth Hamblin, C (6'6", Fr., 8.71 MVP)
Oregon State brought in a highly-touted freshman class this season, considered by some to be one of the top recruiting efforts in the nation. And those additions are paying dividends immediately, although the one who stood out statistically might not immediately stand out to some.
Although Oregon State remained as balanced in non-conference play as they have been the last couple of years, Ruth Hamblin emerged as the statistical MVP even though she did not start a game. Hamblin leads the team in scoring efficiency (56.32% true shooting percentage) and turns the ball over less than anyone on the team (8.13% turnover rate). Most impressive as a freshman post player is that she has kept herself out of foul trouble (13 fouls in 12 games) while leading the team in blocked shots (1.8 per game, T-4th in Pac-12), demonstrating good defensive awareness.
- Offensive rebounding was the biggest strength for Oregon State in non-conference play and it wasn't simply because of their 6'6" center off the bench - she's really only an average rebounder. The key to this team's rebounding differential is that almost everyone on the roster is a decent rebounder, whether defensively or offensively. That obviously makes it more difficult to stop them from rebounding and should help them moving forward in conference play.
- The Beavers have been a really strong defensive team as well, holding opponents to just 33.7% shooting from the field and leading the conference in shot blocking during non-conference play (5.75 per game).
- No Pac-12 team could claim to be quite as balanced as Oregon State in non-conference play - their top three statistical contributors freshmen off the bench who accounted for about 45% of the team's overall statistical production. Although top-scorer Jamie Weisner, one of those three freshmen, is more of a volume shooter at a usage rate of 25.25%, shots are otherwise rather evenly distributed across the rotation.
- The Beavers don't have a lot of reliable perimeter scorers, which might be considered the flip side of saying they're "balanced". Weisner is the closest thing as a player who can get her own shots and shoots 37.2% from the 3-point line.
- Following the previous point, they were last among Pac-12 teams in 3-point shooting during non-conference play at 25.6%. Nobody aside from Weisner even averages a 3-point shot per game. Nevertheless, they took the third most 3-pointers in the conference. One might expect them to see a lot of zone this season as opponents just wait for them to shoot themselves out of the game.
- Yet turnovers are the biggest problem for the Beavers. That begins with Weisner who had a turnover rate of 20.69% while having the highest usage rate on the team and averaging less than an assist per game. But overall, similar to Arizona, they have not one player who didn't have a negative pure point rating, meaning they have nobody who could be considered an efficient distributor.
- To the point about them struggling to score, inefficient shooting was a primary reason for their upset loss to Sacramento State at home: after taking a 41-30 halftime lead, they shot just 24.2% in the second half and then just 1-for-12 in the overtime period. Sacramento State imposed their uptempo pace on the game and OSU apparently just couldn't keep up.
X-Factor: Jamie Weisner, G (5'10", Fr., 7.50 MVP)
Surely most people would find it weird to consider a team's leading scorer a "X-Factor", but in this case Weisner's inefficient ball handling during non-conference play is something to watch for Oregon State. As the team's best perimeter scoring option, any improvement in creating for others or ball control generally would help them tremendously as a team that already has its fair share of turnover prone players.
The problem is that one could imagine things getting tougher for Weisner as the team's primary scoring option: Pac-12 teams are going to game plan for her and if they can take her out of the game either by limiting her scoring efficiency or forcing her into turnovers.
Key question: How far can OSU's freshmen take them during the season?
With five freshmen on the roster and three emerging as major statistical contributors on the team, OSU's future is bright. Even if they don't continue to improve in the standings, this year is equally important just in terms of them gaining experience. Next year with Indendi back and a year of experience for the freshmen they should be able to really make an impact in the conference standings. But on paper it looks like they might struggle to continue their ascent up the Pac-12 standings barring some development from some of those young players.
Then again, if anything, we've learned over the past two years not to count Rueck's teams out.