It's no secret that Rice's men's basketball program has not been very successful in recent seasons. Last year's team finished the season with a woeful 8-23 record, and with many of the same players returning this season, there shouldn't be much hope for this season.
Yet, strangely, there is this feeling of hope and confidence to be found at Tudor Fieldhouse.
Perhaps that hope comes from the presence of sophomore big man Arsalan Kazemi.
Kazemi battled in the paint throughout last season, averaging 10.3 points a game and 9.1 rebounds -- ranking second in C-USA for rebounds -- while setting the school's freshman record for rebounds in a season with 272 total rebounds.
He had double-figure rebounds in 22 games. And this past season, Kazemi, a native of Iran, played for his national team in the FIBA World Championships where he averaged 12 points a game while playing against some of the best basketball in the world, including a U.S. team consisting of some of the best players the NBA has to offer.
But Kazemi no longer cares about the FIBA games. That is past history, and all that matters is this upcoming Rice basketball season.
"It was really amazing...I put it away because right now is Rice time," he said on Monday. "Whatever I wanted to do is to win this season because, if you look at it, in the past season, we only won like eight games, and I hate losing, and I'm losing like for one whole year, and I really wanted to stop it and start winning games."
Kazemi heads up young roster consisting of just four seniors. But it's a team that battled adversity last season, and head coach Ben Braun thinks that what the team went through last season will help them this year. He notes that the Owls were in most every game that they played, but that in the end, lack of defensive focus and consistency doomed the team. This year is going to be different, and Braun believes the team has a capacity to do great things.
"We were in some games last year, but when crunch time came, we just didn't get the stops that I think our team needed," he said. "So if we go out there and take some pride in the defensive end, and get some stops, stay out of foul trouble -- our idea of stopping people [last season] was grabbing people and fouling, and that's not stopping them. That's putting them at the foul line. To me, that's not acceptable. We have to be better defensively. So that's going to be a real focal point for our team. I like our size inside. We're knocking down shots. I think offensively we'll pick things up. But I think it starts at the defensive end."
Another plus for the Owls is the return of guard Cory Pflieger who missed all of last season with an ACL injury, but who received a medical waiver from the NCAA to play this season after having already graduated.
Kazemi looks forward to Pflieger's return because he thinks that Pflieger's ability to hit jumpers from outside will remove some of the pressure and double-teams that he dealt with last season. And Braun's happy for Pflieger's return because of the leadership that he brings to the team.
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Pflieger stated that this last year has been hard on him, and that part of his reason for returning is that he felt like he left the school and his teammates down by not playing last season. It was his job to provide leadership for the team last season, and he was unable to do that.
"Sitting out and being at every home game -- I didn't always travel with the team to away games because I stayed in rehab -- but I saw the team play a lot during practice and during the games, a lot of mistakes that we made were mental mistakes just from a lack of experience," he told Hair Balls. "It was a young team...just seeing that those were the types of mistakes, we [are] definitely work[ing] on that in practice to try to eliminate that. To make those players realize that they're not freshman anymore. They need to step up, mentally concentrate, work on weaknesses in their game, and I think we've really benefited through the work that we've done this summer, and this preseason."
In the end, it's all going to be about how the team navigates through the waters of Conference USA. And as the Houston Cougars proved last year, if a team gets hot at just the right time, the conference is there for the taking.
The Owls tip-off the season on November 12 when they host St. Thomas. Among the teams on their non-conference schedule are Texas, Arizona, and LSU. The conference schedule begins January 5 with a game against Tulane.