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Yes, the Rice Owls Will Play Basketball This Season

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John Royal
Ben Braun must look back before going forward.
Ben Braun's tone is weary. His expression is resigned. His body language is tired. He's aware of the questions that he's about to face in the long day ahead of him, and he knows that if he's ever going to get a chance to talk about the future, he's going to have to first talk about the past.

Braun, the head coach of the Rice Owls men's basketball team, sits at a table in a Irving, Texas, hotel conference room. Houston Cougars coach James Dickey is at the table across from him. Coaching legend and new SMU head coach Larry Brown is at a table up at the front of the room. Tim Floyd from UTEP, and Danny Manning, the new coach at Tulsa and former NCAA and NBA great, are also present, as are the women's basketball coaches at these schools.

Brown and Manning are surrounded by the press at this Conference USA media day because they're legends. Braun receives the attention because his team has been decimated by player defections during the off-season. It's not something Braun really wants to discuss -- he wants to talk about the guys who stayed and those who are coming.

Braun is a gentleman. He knows he has to talk, and he does. He doesn't disparage or denigrate the players who departed. He doesn't lash out at certain former members of his coaching staff. He just says the team has a problem. That mistakes were made, particularly in the types of players that were recruited and coaches who were hired. It's obvious he's hurt, though he won't say so. He just takes the high road.

"I understand, and I've granted releases to players that have come in because they wanted to gain more playing time," Braun said on Tuesday. "I've never told a kid he should leave. I've never taken a scholarship away from a player, and I never will, but if a player comes in and discusses an opportunity to want to play, that's something I have to listen to. That happens. Not just in our program...It can't happen a lot. And that's what I'm sensing, too. That's what I'm disappointed in, and that's what I have to fix. It can't happen -- I want to make sure we're doing everything we can."

He tried to get guys to stay. Told some of them unhappy with playing time that they'd get more playing time if they stayed. But they didn't listen, didn't want to listen.

"It's been tough," he said. "I'm not going to say it hasn't. I'm disappointed. I feel bad for so many guys that left because I feel that they would have gotten so many opportunities here, and how do you explain that to players; they have to figure that out on their own."

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John Royal
Arsalan Kazemi and assistant coach Marco Morcos, two of the recent Rice basketball departures.
And there's his puzzlement over the places some of his players, former players, transferred to. Sure, the schools are bigger names than Rice. Sure, the schools are in better conferences. But the schools, their basketball programs, they're not better than Rice. Not better than what Rice would have been had they decided to stay.   But it's the perception, Braun says. The perception that Rice will never be anything more than Rice while these colleges, USC, Oregon, Villanova, will give them the exposure, the playing time, a better skill set, to get them into the NBA.

This isn't just an issue at Rice. It's just that the large number of off-season departures from Rice make it seem so much worse than what happens at other schools. But it is happening. And it's happening because players don't want to hear truths. They want to hear promises and lies.

"Somebody told me there were 400 Division One transfers this year," coaching legend Larry Brown said. "It's crazy. And you're right, a lot of kids that have told me 'no' recently, I wouldn't be surprised if they're coming back to Texas before all is said and done. I don't want to wish that on them, but they want to play right away. I can't promise anybody that they're going to play right away. I've got to go into a home next week or next year. I can't just promise them the opportunity to play."

Meanwhile, there's the issue at Rice University where the basketball lost six players this off-season -- five up-transfers and one player turning pro. The Owls will play basketball this season, and Braun gets excited when discussing his backcourt, which is still actually composed of two starters from the end of last season, Tamir Jackson and Julian DeBose. But the defections did harm the program, and Braun is making changes.

"Any time you make changes in your program, and I've made some changes, when you make changes, you want to make changes that will help your program," Braun said. "Looking forward, we just have to build on positives. We don't want to look back in any way. We have to look forward."

The present is going to be tough for Rice. There's no height, and while he believes he can get points from his team, Braun's not sure of where the rebounds will come from. His team will compete this year, he believes. Meanwhile, he's going to work on recruiting players who will value the Rice experience, who will value playing for a school such as Rice, and he's bringing in coaches who will support, guide and mentor the players.

It's going to be difficult. But has any coach at Rice ever taken a job thinking it will be easy?

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