Rice men's basketball coach Mike Rhoades accepted the head coaching job at Virginia Commonwealth University on Tuesday after three seasons in Houston, just a day after the Owls lost to Utah Valley in the College Basketball Invitational to end their season.
He leaves the Owls in much better shape than the program he inherited in 2014.
The Owls finished this season with 23 wins. Rice finished in the upper half of Conference USA. The team had only one senior, and the core of a rapidly improving, wildly athletic team was all set to return. It’s a Rice team that has improved significantly in all three seasons that Rhoades had been in the helm. It was time now for the Owls to take the next step, and this offseason would be devoted to continue improving.
“We have to use all of this, the success that we’ve had, the tough games, tonight, and just take the next step and get better,” Rhoades said after the loss. “When you do that, you have another great season, and that’s what it’s about.”
But while Rice was losing to Utah Valley, and while Rhoades was addressing the Houston media, the LSU Tigers were hiring Will Wade away from VCU to be the school’s next head basketball coach. That left the VCU job open for a new coach, and apparently the first name on VCU’s list was Rhoades, a former assistant coach there.
That’s sad news for Rice and for the players who bought into what Rhoades was selling. But Rice needs to toss those sad thoughts aside and look at the positive. For instance, this is the first time in many, many years that Rice has lost a head coach to another school. And it’s not just another job; the Virginia Commonwealth job is a promotion and losing a coach to a better program speaks to just how much better Rice has gotten as a basketball team.
“Look at what we did,” Rhoades said after the game Monday night. “Look at what these guys did. Every year we got better. The guys got committed to getting better. They stuck together.”
Who Rice will hire to replace Rhoades is still very much an unknown. But this person will come into a program that is in much better shape than what Rhoades inherited when he took the job. To start with, the new coach will have Marcus Evans (who averaged 19.2 points for the season) and Marcus Jackson (12.2 points) as the hubs around which to operate the offense. Marquez Letcher-Ellis continues to improve and it seems as if in each game he makes one of those type of plays that would leave even NBA players in awe — on Monday night, Letcher-Ellis soared down the baseline before slamming down a tomahawk dunk.
Egor Koulechov, questionably the team’s most consistent player this season, and who embraced like no other player on the team Rhoades’s offensive philosophy of running and gunning, has a year of eligibility left, but he is supposedly on track to graduate and there have been rumors that if he does, he would elect to turn professional. But unlike in years past, Rice has a deep bench of hugely talented players who can step in — like Connor Cashaw and Chad Lott — and help Rice continue down the path to winning games.
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“I love those guys,” Rhoades said of his team. “They’re good dudes. I love them. They’re fun to be around. They care about each other. They’re guys you want to walk into your house and spend time with.”
There’s no guarantee Rice continues to improve or that it does challenge for the C-USA title next season. That all depends on who Rice hires as the head coach, and on whether he continues with Rhoades's offensive and defensive systems.
Then there’s this: Rhoades bought into Rice. He understood what made the school tick, and how difficult it is not only to coach there, but to be an athlete there. He appreciated not only what his players had to go through as students, but he honestly seemed to care about the entire student population at the school. And that, more than anything, is going to be the most difficult thing for Rice to find in hiring a new coach.
“It’s not about the team. It’s about the community,” Rhoades said at the very end on Monday night. “And if you feel part of it as a student, and other people do, then that’s doing it in the right way…Any time you have success and you can share it with lots of people, that’s so much more enjoyable. It should be that way.”