John Royal Arsalan Kazemi and assistant coach Marco Morcos, two of the recent Rice basketball depatures
The Owls have lost six players since last the team played. These aren't players who lost their eligibility or graduated. Five of the players who requested the school release them from their scholarships did so so they could transfer to another school, and one player departed to turn pro in his native Lebanon. These weren't just bit players. Five of these players were supposed to lead the basketball team this season to heights not seen by Rice basketball in several generations.
These transfers and departures might be innocent -- especially in the case of David Chadwick, who transferred to Valparaiso in search of more playing time. But the other five departing players are all tied, in some fashion or another, to Marco Morcos, who until last April was an assistant coach at Rice until his contract was not renewed.
The most recent departure, and the one that's perhaps the most devastating to the team, is that of Arsalan Kazemi. Kazemi, the team's best player, left the team last week and transferred to Oregon. He averaged a double-double in points and rebounds the past two seasons. The native of Iran was essentially the heart and soul of the team. He was the roommate of Omar Oraby, the 7-4 center who was a native of Egypt. Morcos helped to recruit Oraby, and Morcos and Kazemi were good friends.
Oraby departed in September, and he ended up at USC, a school he visited with Morcos after departing Rice. Both Kazemi and Oraby can only play this season if they are granted hardship waivers by the NCAA. The hardship waivers are supposedly only granted because of financial hardship, injury or illness to the player or a family member. And seeing as how the families of Kazemi and Oraby live in the Middle East, it's kind of hard to see how or why such waivers would be granted, though Kazemi seems to think he'll qualify.
Also departing the team was forward Ahmad Ibrahim from Lebanon, also recruited by Morcos, who left to play pro ball in Lebanon. He was joined by point guard Dylan Ennis, recruited by Morcos, who transferred to Villanova, and forward Jarelle Reischel, also recruited by Morcos, who transferred to Rhode Island. David Chadwick, not recruited by Morcos, transferred to Valparaiso in search of playing time. As with Oraby and Kazemi, Ennis, Reischel and Chadwick will only be able to play this season if they're granted hardship waivers.
John Royal Rice coach Ben Braun is left wondering whether he'll be able to field a team.
There's nothing wrong with up-transferring in and of itself. But according to SI.com and Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, there is recruiting, tampering, and illegal activity involved in up-transferring (not that Krzyzewski is any kind of saint when it comes to taking up-transferring players). And the matter of five players associated with one former assistant coach all deciding during one off-season to transfer or depart a program, with four players going the up-transfer route, well, that might be cause to wonder if there's something a little irregular going on (the word is, however, that Kazemi's actions are all his own.)
Rice head coach Ben Braun and the Rice administration are quiet on the matter and have refused to comment besides stating they wish the players the best, and that this is part of a national trend.
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And they're right, this is part of a national trend, but to put all of the blame on the national trend is a bit disingenuous. Not every basketball program is losing six players in one off-season. Not all of the programs have their departures linked to one former assistant coach, or to a former assistant coach who has a history of bending the rules when it comes to recruiting.
It's always going to be hard for Rice teams to compete in the major sports. But if the likes of Vanderbilt and Stanford and Northwestern can find ways to be competitive playing in much tougher conferences, and with standards as rigid as Rice, then the Owls should also be able to compete.
Just last March it looked as if this might be the year the Owls basketball team mattered nationally. They are mattering nationally at the moment, though not in the fashion they intended to matter. And they're hoping this mattering doesn't bring some added extra attention from the NCAA.