Mike Rhoades wants his players to embrace the unexpected. He wants them to rise to the challenge. That's how things worked at his former stop, Virginia Commonwealth, where he was assistant coach to Shaka Smart. And now that Rhoades is the man in charge of Rice Owls basketball, he's demanding the same thing.
The practices are faster. The style of play uptempo. The workouts are intense (including Navy Seal training at the start of the school year). The players are working to the point of endurance and past it. The Owls of the past several years have been a team that wilted under player defections and controversy. The atmosphere was poisoned, the morale was low. But Rhoades is seeking to change that attitude, to sweep it away with a new approach to the game.
"I just wanted to 'up' everything," he said on Tuesday. "Their approach, their time, their effort. We want to get to a point where we make our guys very quickly uncomfortable, that they understand that that's where you're going to be a lot, so you might as well get comfortable being uncomfortable."
Rhoades wants his guys to embrace the challenges, to not fear the unknown, so that when the opposition unexpectedly switches from a man-to-man to the full-court press, they'll respond calmly and not panic. And since he wants to force the action and pace of the game, he wants his guys to get used to playing on the brink of exhaustion and to be able to mentally adjust to whatever happens on the court.
"Let's make practices and workouts so hard that you're so excited to play the games because they're so much easier," Rhoades said.
The Owls have experienced a lot of player turnover the past several years, but Rhoades is depending on the guys who have stuck it out, like senior Seth Gearhart, junior Max Guercy, and sophomores Marcus Jackson and Andrew Drone, to be the leaders for the new guys on and off the court. And they have bought in fully to what Rhoades wants to do.
Gearhart calls it a fresh start to basketball, and says he's rejuvenated and can't wait to play. "It's nothing like we've done in the past three years," he said Tuesday. Rhoades wants the Owls to play the same style as VCU, a fast-paced offense with a pressing defense. But he's realistic and realizes that he might not yet have the personnel to do exactly what he wants, which is a team that employs the full-court press for 40 minutes a game.
"It's always going to evolve just because you're dealt the hand you have right now," Rhoades said. "How I would like to play? I'm realistic. I can't play that way right now with the personnel we have. But we are going to play fast, and we're going to be very aggressive. I'm not walking the ball up the court. We're not going to run back and react to everything people are going to do to us. We're going to try and be very proactive. We're going to try to have a fast-paced game. But I'm also realistic this year. I know there are certain things that our team can do, and there are certain things they can't do."
The style of play might evolve as time passes, but there's no doubt that it'll be different from what Rice fans have seen the past several years. Expect more fast breaks, more quick shots, more ball movement. It's a style that the players appreciate, running, shooting, defending, back the other way.
"These guys have jumped in from day one," Rhoades said. "I've been very proud of them for that and very appreciative of that, because it doesn't always happen that way. The guys have jumped in from day one, gone, 'Coach, what do we need to do?'"
It's been a long time since anyone's been excited about Rice Owls basketball. There's been the controversy and the player defections and low attendance. It's been more about getting through the season than in enjoying the season. The Owls are still probably undersized, and they're still probably a little undermanned. But Mike Rhoades and his players promise that fans are going to like what they see on court. The wins might not be there, not yet, but it's going to be a more fun game to watch.
The Owls open the season on November 14 at Oregon State. But those hoping to witness the new Owls in person can get their first glimpse of a fast-break, pressing Owls team on November 19 when the school hosts Prairie View.