The Rice Owls (11-8, 2-2) lost a basketball game they should have won on Wednesday night. The Houston Cougars (9-9, 1-4) were blown out yet again. It's turning into another disappointing men's basketball season in Houston, Texas.
It's not supposed to have been this way. Not this season. For the Rice Owls, at least. The Owls came into this season led by forward Arsalan Kazemi, arguably the best player in Conference USA. It's a team with some veteran leadership: Kazemi, point guard Tamir Jackson and shooting guard Connor Frizzelle, who have been through the wars, so to speak, and who were ready to seemingly lead a talented group of freshmen to heights not seen by Rice basketball in several seasons.
Only that's not happening. Kazemi's battling through an injury -- he played on Wednesday night despite an injured right knee, the results from a Wednesday MRI the team was still waiting for -- and hasn't been the player he was earlier in the season. Jackson's been relegated to bench duty. Freshman Dylan Ennis and Ahmad Ibrahim have shown flashes (Ibrahim was the C-USA Freshman of the Week last week). But the parts have yet to jell into one cohesive whole.
"I think we're very close," Ennis said following the UAB loss. "I think we have all the tools. I think our focus is there. I think skill-wise, we're there. We just have to put everything together. We've been playing great basketball. I think it's just finishing out games where we can improve on. I think we're right there."
The Owls lost to C-USA rival UAB 61-60 in OT Wednesday despite having had, at one point, a 17-point second-half lead. Of course, failing to hit a basket for virtually the last 10 minutes of regulation will do that, and if not for Ennis getting a steal and layup with 36 seconds remaining in the game to tie it up, the Owls would not have had the chance to blow some defensive assignments and lose on a three-pointer in OT just as the buzzer went off.
When the Owls work, they work. The defense pushes the offense and they play a nice-looking transition game. That happened during the first half on Wednesday night when they built their lead on UAB. But they still tend toward sloppiness on both ends, forcing passes or leaving guys open. They're near the top of the conference in rebounding offense, rebounding margin, and assists, but they have one of the worst scoring defenses and have problems with both making and defending three pointers.
In short, the Owls have one primary problem. Consistency. If they can ever learn how to play a consistent game, they'll be dangerous because for the most part, every night, the effort is there.
"We've got to make it a little bit better," Owls head coach Ben Braun said. "We've got to be a little bit more steady in the second half in terms of turning it on. A little bit stronger, and then, when we have an opportunity, seize that opportunity and take advantage of it. We've had some opportunities. Our effort in the first half was an outstanding effort...we've just got to maintain that."
The Cougars are a different story, having lost 70-54 to SMU in Dallas on Wednesday. This was the fourth straight conference loss for the Cougars as a season that started with promise -- three straight wins to open up, including defeating Arkansas in Little Rock. But the team has proceeded to fall apart from there.
They've lost close games to Oakland, TCU and LSU -- the TCU and LSU defeats coming on last-second shots where the Cougars failed to block out after having taken a one-point lead just seconds earlier. And all four conference losses have been by double digits, including a 20-point loss to UTEP and a 24-point loss to Memphis.
The team's main problem appears to be the lack of a dominating player at any position. That and the lack of a true point guard to distribute the ball to whoever gets hot on any given night. The team has a tendency to get sloppy, rushing the ball down the court on offense before properly setting up, resulting in neither a fast break opportunity nor a good offensive set. Then there's the general sloppiness on defense, especially when it comes to blocking out under the boards.
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The Cougars are still a young team. Very young. So it's hard to get on the team and forecast nothing but doom and gloom for years to come. And James Dickey supposedly has a strong recruiting class coming in next year, but with the impending move to the Big East, the Cougars are going to have to start getting much, much better, much, much more quickly because if they're having trouble in C-USA, then they're going to be hopeless in the Big East.
Both teams return to action tomorrow night, with the Cougars hosting East Carolina at Hofheinz Pavilion and the Owls hosting Tulsa at Tudor Fieldhouse. Both games will tip-off at 7 p.m.