For about ten minutes last night, the Rice Owls basketball team seemed to forget that it was the Rice Owls basketball team. There was crisp movement of the ball, smart-incisive passing, good shot selection. The visiting Oregon State Beavers, a bigger, more athletic, more talented team, looked discombobulated out on the court. The Owls even had a lead.
Then reality set in and the Owls (0-3 on the season) remembered they were the Owls. Poor shot selection and bad ball movement. The defenders weren’t rotating. Oregon State players began making the three pointers they had been missing. By the half, the Beavers were up 44-33 and the game was essentially over.
It took the Owls more than four minutes to score their first bucket in the second half, by which time Oregon State was up 19 points. The Owls made it an entertaining game, finding a way to crawl back into the game, but ultimately getting to within no closer than six points, losing 77-69.
That the Owls didn’t get blown out is, in some ways, a victory, seeing as how Cal blew out the Owls 97-65 in the season opener and San Francisco shot them down 80-54 in the next game. But moral victories mean absolutely nothing. Not when the team’s 0-3, and not after so many years of losing.
“There was a level of fight we had today, an aggressiveness, that is a good thing.” head coach Mike Rhoades said after the game. “That is hopefully a precursor to how we’re going to play the rest of the year. We raised the bar today [against Oregon State], and now we have to keep it there and start raising it more. We’re past moral victories around here, and getting close is good enough. The heck with that. We’re not here for that.”
The Owls can be a fun team to watch. For those first ten minutes or so of the first half, the Owls were constantly pushing the ball up the court and pressuring Oregon State. And for the last 12 minutes or so of the second half, the Owls scratched and clawed and worked back into the game, preventing it from becoming the runaway it was so close to being.
Rice’s strong first half, and its second comeback attempt, were fueled by Rice playing fast, pushing the ball up the court and forcing defensive miscues from Oregon State. It’s a fun style of basketball to watch, and it’s how Rhoades wants his team to operate. But while his team’s better prepared to run this style this season, it’s still just not good enough, still lacking enough talent and athleticism to pull it off for a complete game. And when the Owls start getting sloppy, taking wild shots, making poorly thought-out passes, being out of position on defense, the team just doesn’t have the talent to recover.
But Rhoades isn’t accepting excuses. It doesn’t matter that he’s playing freshmen or that there are injuries to deal with. He doesn’t want to hear about it.
“Everyone’s saying we’re young, and we have guys out,” Rhoades says. “You know what? Nobody cares. When the game started, nobody cared that we’re young. Nobody cared that we’ve got guys out. Either you can play or you can’t. Either your team wins or it doesn’t.”
There is some talent on this team. And the guys showed flashes of the talent throughout, especially freshmen forward Marquez Letcher-Ellis (12 points in 15 minutes of play) and sophomore transfer Egor Koulechov (16 points in 36 minutes). But there were too many mistakes, too many wild shots, for a team like Rice that plays with a really thin margin of error.
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“To win a college basketball game is really hard,” Rhoades said. “Especially on the road [the first two games] and especially against really good teams…They [young kids] had a great welcome to college basketball. And they play for a coach who’s not making excuses for them or for us. We’re just not doing that. We had to get better. There was a lot of reality the last few days.”
It’s tough for Rice fans to hear, of course. The losing and the making mistakes and the thin margin of error. The having to play better, to not make excuses. That’s it all really hard. But that’s just kind of the way things are right now.
“We’re here to win,” Rhoades said. “These guys have to understand that very quickly. But if we take that approach, it’ll happen.”
The winning’s not happening. Not yet. But there’s improvement, and that improvement’s hopefully coming on quicker and quicker. The next chance to show off the improvement, to show that the team’s here to win and that the guys understand that commitment to winning, is Sunday evening when Rice hosts Fresno State at 5:00.