Despite Losing Season, the Future's Not So Bleak for Rice Basketball

The Rice Owls' basketball season ended Wednesday night just like most other games during the year. The Owls lost 79-69 to Charlotte in the Conference USA Tournament. Rice fans are familiar with the details of the loss. The team falls behind by a lot but stages a furious comeback to get back into the game. But ultimately it proves to be too big a hill to climb and the team loses.

The team’s final record for the season was 12-20. Just another losing season in many, many losing seasons for the team. It’s got to be hard to feel optimistic about this team, to feel good about the sport, what with loss after loss after loss. Good losses, bad losses, they are still just losses, and losing stings.

But there is hope. Seriously. There is hope for the future, and that future may be as soon as next season. And when it does happen, it’s going to be a form of basketball unlike any ever seen from the Rice Owls.

Mike Rhoades was the assistant coach to Shaka Smart at VCU when he was hired to head up the Owls. Shaka Smart’s VCU teams (and now his Texas teams, where he is the coach) were known for playing 40 minutes of uptempo, fast-break basketball that hopefully wreaked havoc on the opposition. That’s not been the case, yet, at Rice.

“Everybody thought he would automatically be havoc and ‘Shaka Smart,” Owls radio announcer J.P. Heath told the Press. “But he [Rhoades] said, 'We can’t do that exactly yet,' so eventually he wants to get up to an 11-12 [man] rotation. You’ve got seven now; it could be nine or ten strong next year.”

That’s where the hope comes in. The Owls were pretty much a seven-man team this season, and it’s difficult to play uptempo, fast-break basketball for 40 minutes when there are just seven players. So at times the team slowed things up, played a set offense. But there’d be moments in each game when the team would kick it into high speed and it was like the Owls were a different team, or as Rhoades has referred to it, the team has gone downhill and attacked.

“You hear me all of the time — I want to push it whether misses or makes,” Rhoades says. “But sometimes we have to run our stuff. Because of our depth, there’s times when we have to set up and burn a little clock.”

Rice is losing one player from the rotation, point guard Max Guercy, but the core of the rotation, including Conference USA Freshman of the Year and First Team All-Conference guard Marcus Evans, returns as do fellow freshmen Connor Cashaw and Marquez Letcher-Ellis. Also returning are the team’s second leading scorer, sophomore Egor Koulechov, and junior center Andrew Drone. Marcus Jackson and Chad Lott, who were supposed to be key cogs for the Owls this season before suffering season-ending injuries right before the season started, are also returning for next season (and there was some preseason hype that said Lott was better than Evans).

So you take those guys and the recruits coming in for next season, and suddenly the Owls are looking at a deep bench that lets them go downhill and attack for the entire game, playing havoc with opposing teams.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Evans says of the uptempo play. “That’s why a lot of guys come here, to play fast. And when we play that fast, we get a lot more possessions, guys get more shots. It’s just fun for everyone out there when we’re playing that fast.”

So if things work as planned, all the Rice games will start to look a bit like what Shaka Smart’s VCU teams looked like when they were NCAA Tournament fixtures. It might also look a lot like the game against FIU that Rice won 86-70 that was a fast-paced, uptempo affair. And there are flashes in each game, usually involving Evans and Letcher-Ellis running a fast break, that show the promise of just how spectacular the Owls can be.

“It’s a fun way to play,” Rhoades said. “I’ve always wanted to play that way, and we’re always going to play that way, for sure.”

Yes, the Owls had another losing season. Yes, it’s hard to deal with the fact that this happens every season. But the Owls have talent and there’s more talent coming. The Owls have a coach with a plan that he’s putting into action. And that plan involves a fun style of play. So be ready Rice fans because the future’s almost here, and that future’s going to be a blast.
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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal