It's a dreary Saturday evening in early December. The 1-6 Rice Owls are hosting the St. Edwards Hilltoppers, a Division II college from Austin. The Hilltoppers are supposed to be a patsy, one of those obscure schools that fill out a schedule so the big school can get the easy win.
The game's a struggle for the Owls, though, as have been all the games this season. The team's undersized, the roster's small and the players aren't quite talented enough to play the full-court fast-break offense preferred by new head coach Mike Rhoades. So he's slowed the game up a bit, with lots of passing and running a slower half-court offense. The Owls get tons of great shots with open looks that players die for. It's just that they miss these shots time and time again, allowing the Hilltoppers to stay in the game.
The Owls eventually pull out the 54-49 win. Sophomore big man Andrew Drone leads the team with 14 points and nine rebounds, and the Owls, heading into the finals break, have their second win of the season. It's not pretty, but it's not about being pretty this season. The Owls will take the win, any win, this season, beauty be damned. Especially after so many of their losses this season have been close and somewhat down to the wire.
It'll be 45 years this March since the Owls last played in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. There have been four NIT appearances in that time, and one trip to something called the CIT. There have been an awful lot of losing seasons during that time frame, and a hell of a lot of coaches. Rice is now in its third conference since that 1970 appearance.
So welcome aboard to Mike Rhoades, the latest coach tasked with setting right the sinking ship that is Rice basketball. It's a long list of coaches who have failed where Rhoades dares to sail since 1970. Don Knodel (77-126 in eight years). Bob Polk (17-63 in three years). Mike Schuler (30-76 in four years). Tommy Suitts (63-99 in six years). Greg Walcavich (1-7). Scott Thompson (65-79 in five years). Willis Wilson (218-247 in 16 years). Ben Braun (63-128 in six years). In many ways, it's a miracle that there's still a boat afloat for Rhoades to stabilize. But Rhoades knows this isn't going to be an easy job. It's not impossible, or else he probably wouldn't have taken the job. But this isn't just some easy patch job. He can't plug holes with JUCOs, and he can't really go out and beat up on lesser schools because the truth is, Rice is now one of those lesser programs. His team's got to play nearly perfect basketball every night. And if the players don't buy in to what he's doing, then the play's not going to be near close to perfect.
"We just have such a small margin of error to pull games out, and to find a way to win," Rhoades told the Houston Press after the St. Edwards win. "We can't keep throwing the ball away, or not being strong with the ball, or not running a play correctly. We did a little bit better job [tonight] down the stretch today of following the late game plan. [The win's] great for our confidence. When you take a couple of close ones on the chin, you need to win a close one...We needed one of these close ones to come our way."
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Rhoades comes from a program, Virginia Commonwealth, where he was an assistant to Shaka Smart, one of the country's bright coaches. Smart has turned VCU into a mid-major power, one that made the Final Four in 2010 and has become an NCAA Tournament mainstay. This happens because the players buy in to Smart's system. A system Rhoades is trying to implement at Rice, but one that may not be truly seen for several more years, until he's had time to recruit more of his type of players.
"They're awesome kids," he says of his current crop. "They're coachable. They really want to see us fix this. They want to see us change this culture."
The Rice basketball culture has been broken for a long, long time, and the question is really one of whether it's actually possible for Rhoades to rebuild a program that's actually never been built. But Rice is no longer hopeless when it comes to sports. Wayne Graham's turned the baseball team into a consistent national powerhouse. And David Bailiff has changed the culture of the football program and has the Owls going to a third straight bowl game for the first time in school history.
It's not going to be an easy job for Mike Rhoades. There are still going to be lots and lots of nights like those against St. Edwards, games where Rice struggles for a win, with more nights where Rice is blown out. But keep an eye on the Owls. If Rhoades can get this Titanic of a program turned around, it's going to be quite the story, and you're going to want to have been in on the ground floor.