Owls Basketball Searching for a Reason to Believe

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John Royal
Rice cheerleaders need a reason to cheer
The Rice Owls were heading high come the start of conference play. They'd already won eight games, matching their total from all of last season. They'd played a difficult non-conference schedule against such college powers as Arizona, Texas and LSU. Sophomore forward Arsalan Kazemi was asserting himself all over the court.

To say that the Owls (8-10) are disappointed with how their play in C-USA has started is to understate things. The Owls are 0-4, and while they've been competitive in several of the games -- blowing big leads in both the second half and overtime against Southern Miss last week, for example -- they were blown out in their last game, losing 66-43 to UTEP last Saturday in a game that wasn't as close as that final score indicates.

And it's a disappointment that's easy to understand because this Owls team isn't that bad. Or rather, it shouldn't be this bad.

Kazemi, coming off of a strong freshman season, has elevated his game this season. His play in this summer's FIBA tournament, in which he matched up against some of the best players in the NBA, added a confidence and power to his game that weren't always seen last year. He's the eighth-leading scorer in C-USA, and he leads the conference in rebounding and field goal percentage. There's nothing he can't do on the court.

But his efforts don't seem to be translating to victories for the Owls. And after that strong end to non-conference play which saw the Owls down LSU and TCU, it appears as if the season is quickly going downhill in a spiral from which the team may not be able to recover. Which makes tomorrow night's game at UCF all the more important if the Owls are going to find some way to salvage what remains of this season.

"This week is a very valuable week for us," Owls head coach Ben Braun said on Tuesday afternoon. "There's two ways to look at a bye week. Number one is, if you're playing well, you probably want to keep playing well. We've struggled in a game, had some guys under the weather, and we haven't played well in the last game. I thought we played fairly well against [Southern Miss]. I though we played fairly well against, actually very well against Tulane and [Southern Miss]. Both games well enough to win."

Well enough to win, but didn't. And Braun's searching for an answer as he seeks to turn things around.

Some of the players have been ill -- Kazemi was under the weather and not at full strength for either the Southern Miss or UTEP games. But Braun doesn't like using illness as an excuse for the team's play because he feels that most teams go through a cycle of injuries and illness through a season, though he did admit that not having Kazemi and guard Connor Frizzelle at full strength has harmed the team's offense.

Missed Dunk.JPG
John Royal
The Owls are like this missed dunk, looking good to start before falling apart
And Braun doesn't want the team worrying about their opponents. He wants the focus to be on themselves and how they can play. He feels that the team showed what it's capable of doing during non-conference play, so he wants them to get back to playing that kind of basketball and not worrying about how tough conference play is turning out to be, or how Rice seems to have to keep facing the best of C-USA night after night.

"Our schedule has been tough all year long," he said. "To have a non-conference schedule that's as good as anybody in our league, and to have a start to our conference playing some tough teams early. That's just the way it goes. Our team's not going to worry about really who we're playing; it's really about how we're playing. I hope our team can come back and get back in a groove where we're playing some good basketball and closing out some games and using that experience to gain some confidence."

The UCF (14-3) team hosting the Owls tomorrow is in a somewhat similar situation. The Knights were 13-0 coming into conference play and storming up the basketball ranking world. Then they lost to UH, Southern Miss and UAB in consecutive games to fall out of the rankings while sinking toward the bottom of the conference standings.

So now two struggling teams that started C-USA play with high hopes are facing off. One of those teams will get the win -- it's got to actually happen. Maybe, just maybe, this is what the Owls need. Instead of facing a hot team like UTEP, they get another struggling team. And maybe, just maybe, the Owls can get their groove back against a team that has seemingly lost its way.

It's that and another loss. And another loss just might end up being that one loss too many. The one that finally pushes the Owls off of the ledge.

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