The Rice Owls played a pure, beautiful form of basketball last Saturday. It was only for about a six-minute stretch, and it was early in the game. But for a short time, there were no fouls, no timeouts, no stoppages of play. It was just two teams (Rice and opponent Stephen F. Austin) pushing the ball at full speed on offense, pressing on defense. When it all ended, after a Marcus Evans turnover that saw the ball go out of bounds, both teams sent in a wave of substitutes.
The Owls went on to win the game 70-63, improving their record to 7-2 for the season (Rice is now 8-2 after defeating St. Edwards 93-64 in a kid's matinee game yesterday). And as impressive as that win, and that six-minute stretch of pedal-to-the-floor basketball, were the fact that Rice had a whole platoon of players not only waiting to check into the game, but also able to play at that same pace.
It's patterned off the style of basketball coached by Shaka Smart, the coach at UT and before that the head coach of Virginia Commonwealth. Fans of Arkansas and Nolan Richardson in the 1990s will also recognize this style of play, which Richardson dubbed "40 minutes of hell" because the blistering pace was not something most teams were capable of playing.
Rice head coach Mike Rhoades was hired from Virginia Commonwealth three years ago (where he was an assistant to Smart) to revitalize the moribund basketball team that was the Rice Owls. And Rhoades has set out recruiting players who can play fast, who have no so-called conscience and thus aren't afraid to shoot the ball and don't dwell on misses. Players willing to commit to him, the school and his style of basketball. He’s had to find starters, and he's had to find depth, so this type of play has been something that Rice has only employed in short spurts the past several years. But that's changing.
“I loved it,” Rhoades said of the pace to start the game. “Keep going. Because someone’s going to have to break before you go to your bench. So keep going. Try to get another one. Try to bang a three in transition. And I’m screaming to keep going because that’s where we want to pride ourselves on that — we want to play harder, faster and longer than our opponent. And that’s really hard to do, especially when we’re pressing, and we’re pushing it and attacking.”
Rhoades calls it playing hot. That's getting the ball up the court quickly. He wants ball movement, quick passes, quick possessions. There should always be an open man and the ball should always find that open man, and that man knows he always has a green light to shoot the ball.
The hot man Saturday was junior Egor Koulechov, who scored 21 points while making six of ten shots. He made all three point attempts while hitting six of seven free throw shots and pulling down nine rebounds. Koulechov's night also helped Rice survive the worst night of stud point guard Marcus Evans's career, in which Evans scored just six points while making only two of 12 shots.
“Marcus was so mature out there,” Koulechov said. "Even though he was struggling most of the game, I think he hit the biggest shot at the end of the game (a jumper toward the end of the game to blunt a Stephen F. Austin comeback attempt). I’m really proud of him. I’m happy for him. But that’s just how it is. Some games I’m going to do some of the scoring, some days it’s Marcus, some days Marcus Jackson. You never know who it’s going to be. I’m just really proud of my team. Even though Marcus struggled so bad, we were still able to come up with the win.”
Koulechov also noted that, while he often doesn't get tired on court, he was thankful for the conditioning the team does in the offseason because otherwise games like Saturday's would not be possible.
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“All that preseason work you do during August, September, summer sessions. You’ve got to bring to this time, right now, when it’s game time,” Koulechov said. “What we did — it’s been working, and we see some progress with this team. I still think we have a long ways to go to get to where we want to, but it’s good to see progress.”
But Rhoades and his players have been set the task not just of breathing life into the basketball team, but also of breathing some life into Tudor Fieldhouse. That means getting fans in the building and bringing excitement to the game experience. Winning games is job one, of course, but he and his players have been working tirelessly to build a relationship with the rest of the university so the students will come to the games and make basketball part of the whole college experience.
“I said it three years ago when I sat down here: It’s not always going to be pretty. It’s still not going to be pretty,” Rhoades said. “But we’re going to do things the right way. We’re going to include everybody. It’s just not going to be the basketball team. It’s the whole environment. It’s everybody, and we’re going to have a lot of fun doing this. I think everybody sees that and they want to be a part of it.”
The Owls play Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh tomorrow night, but they'll play two games at home in Tudor Fieldhouse next week before heading into the Christmas break.