Believe It Or Not, It's Time For College Basketball

They were just exhibition games, and they tell us that exhibition games are meaningless. They don't count in the standings. They're a chance to test game conditioning. To see how well everyone understands the offense. To see what improvements need to be made defensively.

It's a chance for those guys on the bench to get some of that playing time they might not otherwise get during the season. What's it's not supposed to actually be much of is an actual indicator to how the season will actually be.

At least that's what the Houston Cougars are hoping because they can't be too happy or optimistic after struggling against Abilene Christian on Saturday night. On the plus side, the Cougars got a 71-68 win. On the negative side, the Cougars struggled to get a 71-68 win over a Division II school.

The Cougars suited up only eight players, which made things a bit dicey late in the game when sophomore forward Kirk Van Slyke fouled out and the Cougars had several other players playing with four fouls. But despite the officials seemingly blowing the whistle whenever a strong breeze wafted through Hofheinz Pavilion, the rest of the team was able to make it through the game.

The Cougars played without point guard Zamal Nixon because of a severe ankle sprain that has him questionable for the team's regular season opener on Friday night. And sophomore Kendrick Washington was unavailable due to a suspension for violation of team rules that will also have him missing the game Friday.

"We can play a lot better defensively because we did it during the stretch," Dickey said. "What we didn't do was complement our defense with defensive board play. When you play as hard as we try to play defensively you have to match it with defensive board play. That was an area that had a lot of holes in it seeing as how they got 20 offensive rebounds."

Turnovers aside, the offense appeared to be a bit better, primarily because you could see the players passing the ball around, running plays from spots on the floor, and taking good shots - witnessed by their 55-percent shooting percentage for the game. And the turnovers could be seen as a positive as they resulted from players running an actual offense and trying to get passes to their teammates.

"Overall, we have to get much tougher in practice because from here on out the competition is going to get much better," senior forward Maurice McNeil said. "Abilene Christian played a good game today though; they played good defense, and they were tough."

Then came the Rice Owls, who hosted Texas A&M International for an exhibition contest at Tudor Fieldhouse last night. The Owls are coming off an injury-plagued season that saw the team finish 8-23 in head coach Ben Braun's second season with the team. But they're returning with sophomore forward Arsalan Kazemi and senior point guard Cory Pflieger, and Braun is hoping those two can help lead the Owls to C-USA relevance.

The game got off to a quick start with Rice storming off to a 16-6 lead due to three three-point bombs from Pflieger. But then the game literally ground to a halt at about the 11:18 mark as the shot clock malfunctioned and couldn't get running. And if there's anything that a basketball team doesn't want serving as a metaphor for its season, it's got to be a malfunctioning shot clock.

But the Owls suffered none of the problems evidenced by the Cougars. The offense looked crisp, the defense adequate, and most important of all, the Owls rushed out to that early lead and never let Texas A&M International challenge as they won easily 76-49.

"We played this team last year," said forward Trey Stanton, "and they actually should have had the game. They were up in the first half. We ended up getting the win, but actually they were the ones that actually won the game."

Pflieger impressed in his first game experience in over a year, coming out and nailing multiple shots from multiple spots around the three point line while also freely penetrating the lane for lay-ups. It was just an exhibition, but he showed no rust for a guy recovering from ACL surgery. And his outside shooting ability will be a key to the success of the guys inside, and the entire offense, this season.

"If [Cory] can knock those shots down, that gives us great floor spacing," Braun said of Pfliegers's ability to shoot from the outside. "He gives us that inside-out that I've been searching for some time to establish."

In the end, as they ultimately say, exhibition games are meaningless indicators of how a season will actually go once started. But for the Houston Cougars, while there are signs of promise, there are perhaps more signs of problems. And while the Rice Owls can face the season with optimism after last night, the true tests won't begin until this weekend.

SOME MISCELLANEOUS NOTES: Both teams open their regular season schedules this weekend. The Cougars are hosting Nicholls State on Friday at 7 p.m., and then will partake in a doubleheader with the women's team on Sunday afternoon when they tip off against Alcorn State at 2 p.m.. The women will be hosting UT Arlington at 5 p.m....Rice hosts St. Thomas at 8 p.m. on Friday, then hosts Grambling State on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m.

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