As March Madness Looms, Rice Begins To See Light At The End Of A Dismal Tunnel

The Rice Owls go into the C-USA men's basketball tournament tomorrow as the Number 12 seed. They finished the season 7-22 (1-15 in conference). Their chances are nearly nil for advancement past the first round. Their chances for getting to the NCAA nearly nonexistent.

But the winning's not the important thing. Not this season. For the Rice Owls, for coach Ben Braun, it's all about the future.

"Saying that about our team, our record won't show that even, but our guys are playing hard," Braun said after last week's loss to the Houston Cougars. "I think we've had chances. We've been in just about every game played this year. We've had chances to win just about every game. That's a big step from a year ago. We just want to continue to battle. We just want to try to get over the hump."

The Owls have bottomed out over the last several seasons. There was the nomad season of 2007-08 which found the team playing in several different venues while their home court was renovated. That team went 3-27 and head coach Willis Wilson was fired. Ben Braun was brought in as his replacement, and as he finishes his second year, Braun is finding himself with quite the challenge.

But Braun is used to challenges. He has taken two different schools into the NCAA tournament, including Eastern Michigan three times (one Sweet 16) and Cal five times, including another Sweet 16. He's got a career record of 559-433. He's built a record, and he's used to coaching schools with difficult admission standards.

"He's one of the elite coaches in the game," Houston Cougars coach Tom Penders said of Braun. "There are lot of them flash in the pan, five- and six-year wonders in the game, but he's won a lot of basketball games. He's going to make you think, and he's going to make you work. Rice has themselves a great coach. It's just a matter of time before he gets enough of the talent that he needs before that thing gets all of the way turned around."

Braun's goal going into the tournament was for his team to have some momentum. But last week, he didn't define momentum as winning their final game, which is good since they didn't. He defined momentum as coming out and playing hard against UCF.

And seeing as how Rice was in another game before falling away, his goal was accomplished. And he sees what this year's team has done as not having failed, but as having set the stage for next season, and the season's to come.

"I think right now the next step is something that we did take this year. And that's turning it up in terms of our effort level and our competitiveness," he said. "We were competitive. And we've been competitive. I don't know that our record will show that, but I think that if you ask the coaches and the players in this league when we've played them, I don't think we've given away many opportunities....we've played, we just haven't been as consistent about it. We've taken a step. Considering there were games last year I looked up and we were out of the game by halftime, I can't say that about this team. I can say that this team will fight....I like that kind of attitude. I think eventually that will carry over and when we're building our brand, our program, that's going to be huge for us."

Braun recognizes the challenges of coaching at Rice. He can't just go out there and recruit pure athletes. He's got to get the mythical scholar-athlete. He's got to get mythical scholar-athletes who can actually compete. He needs guys who will go full out and aren't easily discouraged.

"That's got to be a non-negotiable," he said. "We've got to have that effort. We just want to get more of it. And longer. We want to have it longer. And that's what our young team has to learn....But we've just got to get over that hump. A lot of it's experience. Sometimes when you take losses, you either want to do something about it, or you accept your fate. I don't think our guys are ready to accept their fate....And that's all that I can ask of our players. That's all that you can ask of yourself as a basketball player, and as a coach."

The Owls season will not end on a successful note. But Braun has a bright future in mind for the Owls. It might not happen next year. It might never happen. Braun does have a history of success. And that type of success is something the Owls haven't experienced in a very long time.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal