Rice Owls Play the Game of "What If?"
The story is not that the Memphis Tigers defeated the Rice Owls 77-51 on Wednesday night. That was to be expected. The story's not that Rice struggled shooting the ball. That's a season-long pattern.
The story's not really about the game the two teams played on Wednesday night. The story's more about what could have been. What could have been if the Owls, now 3-13 (0-3) on the season, were playing with the players who were on the squad when last season ended?
That's the story because if the Owls don't lose six players who were supposed to return to the team, then the outcome of Wednesday's game probably would have been different. There aren't supposed to be any "what ifs" when it comes to sports, but the "what if" is going to define this Rice basketball season.
The Memphis Tigers (13-3) are the glory team of Conference USA. They have the players who are supposed to play in the NBA. They're the team that's supposed to advance to the NCAA Tournament every season. But the simple truth is that the Memphis Tigers just aren't a very good basketball team, and if the Rice Owls had the same core of players this season as finished out last season, then the Memphis Tigers would have some serious problems with keeping that number one spot in the conference.
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The Owls are a well-coached basketball team. The team gets open looks at the bucket on most every offensive possession. They pass the ball, drive the lane, look for guys in space. But head coach Ben Braun can only draw up the plays, he can't actually go out on the floor and shoot the basketball, and shooting the basketball is proving to be a huge problem for the Owls.
The Owls shot just 31.3-percent from the floor on Wednesday night. They missed numerous wide-open lay-ups and mid-range jumpers. They hit just eight of 18 three-point shots. The shots weren't rushed. Memphis wasn't blocking shots. Rice was just missing. And if the Owls are missing shots, they're going to lose because the Owls have no height and they have no size. They're not going to be able to push guys away from the bucket and come down with the rebounds - Memphis out-rebounded the Owls 41-20.
"Our rebounds, we've got to get our post guys to rebound," Braun said. "I challenged them after the game in a positive way, but a direct way. We can't go with two rebounds combined from our post players....They've got to rebound. We've got to get in there and secure defensive rebounds."
The effort is there for the Owls. Senior guard Tamir Jackson won't let his teammates quit on the court, and the team plays an effective defense that forces turnovers. Only the Owls have trouble executing on the turnovers, and after awhile, no matter the effort, no matter the hustle, no matter the efficiently run offense that gets the team open shots, if the ball doesn't go through the hoop, the team's going to lose, and it's going to lose by a lot of points.
"We had some guys with some good open looks..." Braun said after the game. "All of us really had some looks today that a game ago we were really knocking down....We missed more lay-ups tonight, more inside interiors shots than we've missed all year. We probably missed five or six lay-ups."
It wasn't supposed to be like this for the Owls this season. Ben Braun put together a good core of players last season. They had size, athleticism, and skill. The team had scoring threats inside and outside. Arsalan Kazemi and Omar Oraby provided size and good inside play. The team was ready to take off. Then everybody left.
It's still not clear everything that happened that caused the player defections. And Braun and the guys still on his team are having to put that all behind them. But the departures mean the Owls do not have any margin of error when it comes to playing games, and for them to win, the Owls have to make shots, get rebounds, and keep the errors to a minimum.
So it's a story of what ifs. What if Rice makes its shots? What if Rice grabs rebounds? What if the Owls don't lose a group of key players from last season, including their key big guys? What if the Owls team that finished out last season was the same team out on the court this season and going up against a talented, but sloppy team like Memphis?
The Rice Owls could've been a good team this season. They could've challenged for the conference title, they could've had a good shot at making the NCAA Tournament. But no one will ever know what the Rice Owls could've done. All that will be known is what is. And the what is is that the Rice Owls are almost surely going to lose when they go out on the court.