Q&A With ESPN’s Ryan Ruocco

Our Mitchell Hansen caught up with ESPN commentator Ryan Ruocco ahead of the start of the 2017 WNBA Finals between the Minnesota Lynx and the Los Angeles Sparks on Sunday at Williams Arena. Ruocco, Rebecca Lobo and Holly Rowe will be calling each games throughout the series. 

Mitchell Hansen: What have been your thoughts on the Lynx season so far in 2017?

Ryan Ruocco: “I think it’s been amazing. I think it’s incredible. I don’t think anything they do surprises me at this point, just because they are just so consistent. When you think of the heart of a champion, this organization and this group of players epitomize that. It’s incredible what Cheryl Reeve and the core have done and continue to do. There’s no end for this group. Every time you think, let’s use the ‘O’ word, are they finally getting old? Is this it? Nope, they are still going. It’s incredible. Their season, you would have thought maybe even if they are going to have the postseason success they’ve become accustomed to or go on a postseason run that they’ve become accustomed to, maybe they wouldn’t win as many regular season games this year. Nope, they still did that too. I’m not surprised because I’ve just come to expect great things from them, but I am still amazed of the things they’ve done and continue to do.”

MH: For the last seven years they’ve had that consistency of success that we continue to see now. As someone who is around the game a lot, what have you seen from then in the last seven years?

RR: “I think it’s amazing and a testament to the way Cheryl coaches and a testament to the way the organization is run. The fact that, even when they were good, they found a way to get better. Think about the Sylvia move (in 2015). In the midst of this team having success, you wouldn’t have necessarily thought that you know what they need? They need Sylvia Fowles. As it turns out, they kind of did and they knew that before anybody else did. I think that’s one of the things that has impressed me is the way this organization has continually, I don’t know if reloaded is the right word, because they have had so many of these key pieces, but added to what they had and needed. When they realized they needed to add to the bench, they went out and added Renee and Jia and Natasha.

“I think they’ve done a great job in continually adding the pieces they need to the core they have. I think there is just a special connection and appreciation for this moment in time. When you’re talking about Lindsay and Rebekkah and Seimone, I think they all truly, truly and genuinely get how special and rare this moment is. And I think that helps them extend the window longer than people might have thought it was going to be. When I think of how good the talent has become in the WNBA, and the fact that this group is able to continue to sustain this type of success, it’s amazing.”

MH: The team has talked about getting to this point they are at now and how numerous pieces had to fall into place to make sure they all could come together at the right time. Isn’t it remarkable to look back and see how everything kind of fell into place and worked out just right to help them create the team they have now?

RR: “Those opportunities have to come about for you, but then you have to take advantage. I don’t think anybody has done a better job in professional sports, in terms of taking advantage of their window of opportunity, the way the Minnesota Lynx have. They have absolutely and continue to squeeze every single ounce of possibility out of this group and in themselves to the point where they keep extending the window, it’s quite impressive.”

MH: What have been your thoughts on the playoffs so far? Has it been what you expected or have you been surprised by anything?

RR: “I know New York has had some tough postseasons in recent years, but I thought their defense was so good at the end of the year that I thought there was a good chance that they would go on a run. I also thought that New York or Connecticut could give LA or Minnesota an interesting series. I wasn’t shocked that Washington beat New York, I wasn’t surprised that Phoenix beat Connecticut, but I thought that probably New York and Connecticut were maybe more equipped to have longer series with Minnesota or LA. It wasn’t surprising to see them get upset in a one-game playoff, but if you would have asked me would meet in the semis, I think I would have had New York and Connecticut going through.”

MH: Obviously we have a matchup in the WNBA Finals that many wanted this year between Minnesota and Los Angeles. What is the first thing you think of when it comes to this rematch?

RR: “That we are all lucky. Last year was unbelievable. Last year was the greatest Finals of all time. It was incredibly competitive games with a high quality of basketball. Two worthy, worthy champions. I think we all kind of wanted to see that again and we are lucky that we get to. I can’t wait to see the way it unfolds. I could see Maya Moore having a special series. I could see her kind of going off and taking over. I could see Odyssey Sims being a really big factor for LA. Her speed and the difficulty she could give Minnesota’s defense, I could see that being very significant. I think that one of the most interesting things matchup-wise is going to be what happens with Sylvia Fowles as she tries to defend Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, who will take Sylvia away from the hoop. That was something (Phoenix center) Brittney Griner really struggled with in the semifinals. Sylvia makes her biggest impact when she attacks the rim, and if you’re dragging her away with the athletic bigs that LA has, does that open up the driving lanes for an Odyssey Sims? I’m interested in the way that dynamic works.

“Maybe it means Rebekkah Brunson will have an even bigger series, which she’s capable of. I think there are a lot of matchups within in. I could see Maya just going off and having a huge series. I feel like for in order for Minnesota to win, she is going to have to have a really big series. In order for LA to win, we are going to have to be talking about the impact that Odyssey Sims made. I don’t know how you quantify the grit of Minnesota and the revenge factor. I think those are really significant things.”

MH: Many have said that the Finals series last year and the anticipation for the series this year is great for the WNBA and basketball in general. Do you think the same?

RR: “I think it’s sensational to have this series back. I think there are a couple of factors that are into play. One, as we saw in ratings and social media and a lot of different measuring factors last year, people were really into that Finals. And they got more and more invested as it went along. We had great moments, we had stars making big plays and we had drama and controversy in the deciding game. People were totally invested and the fact that you bring those two teams back together, people are going to say oh yeah, I have familiarity with this. Even if they didn’t watch a single game in the regular season, there’s going to be a reaction of I remember this from last year this was really good. Then you have some of the best players in the world: Sylvia Fowles, Maya Moore, Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike. These are excellent and supreme athletes. The women’s basketball fan is going to be watching this anyway, no questions asked. If that fan that maybe wouldn’t always go to it, how would you draw them in? I think the fact that it’s a rivalry, it’s a rematch and the familiarity of last year helps. This is one of the great things about the new playoff format, there’s no question that Los Angeles and Minnesota are the two best teams in the WNBA. It’s the fact that they are meeting in the Finals is great, because we get to see a championship between the two best teams.”

MH: The 2016 series was a very close and back-and-forth series, with teams taking every other game and even Game 5 coming down to the final play. Do you expect much of the same from the series this year?

RR: “I think it will be a back-and-forth series. I’m curious to see the reaction from the fans out at the Barn. On TV, it seemed amazing. I do want to say this, it’s so impressive the Minnesota basketball fans and the fans of the Lynx, what they do for this team and the atmosphere they create. The fact that you could have the kind of homecourt you have at Target Center, move to Xcel Energy Center, actually increase your average attendance there and then have to move again to University of Minnesota and still create this incredible atmosphere. The fact that these fans are willing to follow this team anywhere and great that atmosphere speaks to their passion. I can tell you from a television standpoint it makes a big difference and it makes it so fun for us to have that atmosphere. I’m super pumped to see the Barn.

“I think that the series will play out similarly (to last year), where you’re going to have moments where you think man, LA is just too talented and they are going to win this. Then you’ll have moments like oh no, Maya Moore is not going to let Minnesota lose or Sylvia Fowles is on a mission and the Lynx are definitely winning every home game. I think you’re going to have those feelings where you feel a certain amount of conviction at different moments. That’s usually the sign of a good series. I think it’s going to be the same way (this year). I don’t think there is anything that changed from last year to this year that is going to make me think this isn’t going to be a tightly played, long series.”

MH: Seimone Augustus said this earlier this week that one thing that impacted the semifinals series was the noise at Williams Arena and that the Lynx kind of now know what to expect with the noise level at Williams Arena. How do you think that that will play into Game 1 on Sunday?

RR” “I think Minnesota is always as well-built to handle those kind of factors as any team could possibly be. They are calm, they are poised, they’ve been there, they don’t freak out and they know how to work together. I’ll be interested to see what it’s like for LA if they have a hard time adjusting, at least in Game 1. I’m excited to experience that, I can’t wait to see what that’s like.”

Game 1 of the 2017 WNBA Finals between Minnesota and Los Angeles will kick off at 2:30 p.m. (CT) on Sunday at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. The game will be aired on ABC, 106.1 BOB FM, TuneIn Radio and the Lynx App.