Rice's Tudor Fieldhouse holds just a little more than 5,000 people. It's a small facility built in 1950 (renovated back around 2008) that's a no-frills combination of seats and bleachers with a huge balcony overhanging one of the baselines. There's a big, ultra-modern video board over mid-court, but overall, walking into the building is like stepping back into a time warp when college basketball was an afterthought and not the huge moneymaking spectacle it is nowadays.
Yet over the past many years, watching a game in Tudor has been like sitting in a huge, empty aircraft hanger. Attendance has been near nonexistent and student interest has been lacking. The place has been lifeless, with souls scattered about watching an often hapless basketball team try to stay competitive in a mid-major conference that most of the time offered up only one team to the NCAA tournament, the since-departed Memphis Tigers.
The 11-18 (8-9 in conference) Owls end the regular season in El Paso tomorrow night against UTEP after defeating UTSA 76-74 in San Antonio last night. A glance at the record makes one think that this season has been no different from the year before or the year before that. But things are changing. Attitudes are changing. The Rice Owls of this season, and next season, aren't the Owls of years past, and while this season might seem a disappointment to outsiders, the truth is an undersize, undermanned team was in nearly every game this season (could have, should have perhaps won three or four more games).
The big difference is that new head coach Mike Rhoades has convinced the team that it can win every night. And while that didn't happen this year, next season, when his recruits arrive and the roster's at full strength and he's able to go fast-paced offense and full-court press full out for 40 minutes, the Owls will be like no Rice basketball team ever.
And the Owls have gained confidence in the coach, his system and each other as the season has progressed. The pace of play is quicker since the players are reacting more than thinking about how to react. They've learned that not only does Rhoades believe they can win every game, but that he trusts them on the court to play correctly.
"We're going to play hard," Rhoades said last Saturday night. "We're going to shoot a lot of threes, we're going to go up and down. We're going to keep improving the program."
Rhoades's enthusiasm is contagious. His players have bought in fully, even his seniors who won't be around to see the rebuild completed. And that enthusiasm is spreading about the campus and about the city. Rice played its last home game of the year last Saturday (losing a last-second 77-76 heartbreaker to Charlotte) before a screaming crowd of 4,653 that never quieted and that matched the energy and pace of the team for the entire game.
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"It just kind of shows where our program's going," said senior Seth Gearhart of the crowd for his last ever Rice home game. "It's fitting that the environment was like that for the last home game of the year because it shows the direction we're moving, and hopefully that can be a common occurrence in the near future."
Next week Rice heads to Birmingham for the C-USA tournament. The odds of Rice winning and somehow advancing to the NCAA tourney are not even slight, yet Rice has been extremely competitive in conference play, and there's potential for Rice to do some serious damage to some other team's hope for post-season glory. And that in turn just helps set up next season.
"We'll get [fans] to come back," Rhoades said. "I'm really excited about what we're doing, and people are jumping on the wagon, and we're going to keep improving our players that we have, and we're going to go out and get recruits that want to come here and play here. This [year] was just the start of it."
Maybe Tudor Fieldhouse won't be such a lonely feeling building anymore. Maybe the changing culture of the basketball program will spill over to the fandom and the place will be packed as it was last Saturday night. Maybe this is just the long overdue beginning of a basketball program that, as with Rice football and baseball, always fights and never dies. But whatever it is that's going on with Rice basketball, it's fun to watch.