CORVALLIS, Ore. -- To get some sense of the personality playing point guard for Oregon State, consider how Destiny Slocum's academic year began: with thousands of freshman faces staring back at her while she addressed an orientation event in September.
A transfer from Maryland who sat out last season, Slocum had yet to play a game for the Beavers when she was selected to speak on behalf of the school's athletic teams in what amounted to a pep rally. She had the personality to excite people, a confidence that radiated energy outward rather than absorbed it inward.
People saw it when she sat on the bench in Gill Coliseum a season ago. She didn't need to play to make an impression. They saw it in countless pickup games in Dixon Recreation Center. She captivated without a crowd. She exerts her own gravitational force in a room.
She isn't a satellite. She's a star.
"People always want to give me a mic," as Slocum explained it.
Scott Rueck is giving her something more precious. Oregon State's coach is entrusting her with the culture that rebuilt a basketball program, that took the sport's biggest mess and transformed it from a group that barely had a competitive quorum into one of the best in the nation. Never built around one player during its revival, Oregon State nonetheless always had one player whose individual excellence reflected that culture, from Ruth Hamblin to Sydney Wiese to Marie Gulich. Slocum is next in line.
It just took a little longer than usual for school and player to find each other.
A little more than eight years ago, Rueck inherited a tire-fire-like wasteland of losing and player departures. He couldn't fix that with stars, what with All-Americans not taking his calls, but he could work on culture.
It is an admittedly nebulous term. It encompasses everything from the difficult to measure, such as camaraderie, to attention to detail in spacing a half-court offense, which is easier to measure -- the spaces they want to exploit are literally marked on the practice court. It's also easy to measure the results -- a Pac-12 title within five seasons and a Final Four soon thereafter. Whatever it was they called culture worked.
Those demands haven't changed even as the results and the résumés of incoming players have. So it was that Rueck brought a preseason practice to a halt during a scrimmage-like drill. Without raising his voice or the temperature of the room more than a fraction, he said that the collective effort at that moment wasn't good enough. The words didn't need volume in the suddenly quiet gym. They had the force of a hammer because the players were just as invested in the goal. It was a reminder as much as a reprimand.
"That was a perfect opportunity just to jump in and fight for culture," Rueck said afterward. "I think that's what we do probably about as well as anybody. That culture is tight. How we play, how we conduct ourselves, handling adversity well, that's what we're known for. That's why we're successful."
And because players as talented as Wiese and Gulich bought into that.
The success had already started to unfold by the time Slocum emerged out of Idaho as one of the prizes of her recruiting class entering her junior year of high school, but the Beavers hadn't reached the heights of Final Four trips or Pac-12 titles. Initially committed to Washington, she reopened her recruiting the spring of that year. She sent Rueck a message, mostly because close friend Mikayla Pivec had committed to the school, but she never followed up when the coach responded.
"I didn't really look at Oregon State," Slocum said. "Because in my head back then, Oregon State wasn't good."
"These people brought me in, and I don't feel like a transfer, I feel like I've been here forever." Destiny Slocum
She ended up at Maryland. With its own history of success and lineage of alums, that program isn't the villain in the story. Slocum had misplaced goals.
"I was thinking, 'WNBA, WNBA, how do I get there the fastest?'" Slocum recalled. "Now I'm [at Oregon State], and it's like, 'What can I do with all the years I have?' I don't want to leave because I know that I'm getting better every single day. Once that clicks -- I just found it on my official visit. That's why I would never regret going to Maryland, because I wouldn't know that if I didn't go there.
"I wouldn't have known what I wanted, and I sure didn't know that at 16 or 17 years old."
Now, after a year without games -- except all those pickup games in the same gym Rueck used to frequent as a student -- she has a better understanding of how she fits and what's required of her on the court. She understands the demands of half-court defense and when to look for her shot on offense -- she had almost as many assists as field goal attempts in her first two games.
But Slocum also fit pretty well on the court at Maryland, where she was the national freshman of the year. It was the fit in the wider context that didn't feel right.
She knows her way around every nook and cranny of Corvallis by now. She knows the Dixon regulars, even if she has less time to get a run these days. She has played just 47 minutes in games that count in an Oregon State uniform, yet she is a fixture on campus and in the program. It's why orientation organizers wanted her to speak to the freshmen.
"It was cool, though, for them to give me the opportunity," Slocum said. "These people brought me in, and I don't feel like a transfer, I feel like I've been here forever."
Tactics are malleable. As coach at Division III George Fox, Rueck didn't have the luxury of letting philosophy dictate recruiting. More to the point, he didn't have the luxury of scholarships. He pressed and zoned with a 5-foot-11 center one year and figured out low-post sets for a 6-3 center another year. He has enjoyed phenomenal post players at Oregon State, first Hamblin and then Gulich, and might have another when 6-9 Paraguayan freshman Andrea Aquino takes the court. But he is just as willing to figure out ways to take advantage of a roster with four proven Division I point guards: Slocum, Pivec, Aleah Goodman and Katie McWilliams.
The product might look familiar -- Oregon State isn't going to start running like, say, its Pac-12 neighbor in Eugene. But Rueck also isn't going to waste Slocum walking the ball up court.
What isn't malleable is the culture behind the tactics. That must be permanent, even as Oregon State's success opens doors to more and more tempting talent eager to commit to Corvallis.
In their minds, Slocum isn't a test of that. She's the blueprint.
"She's going to take our culture," Rueck said, "and add her own layer to it that's going to make us better."