Rice Owls Reach the Rarified Air of Basketball Success

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John Royal
Rice head coach Ben Braun has a few words with the officials on Wednesday night.
Something a little magical happened at Rice's Tudor Fieldhouse Wednesday night. Something that basketball fans don't see too often. Something Rice fans have never seen.

It wasn't just that the Owls (16-12, 7-6 in conference) came back from a 15-point first half deficit to defeat the UCF Knights (19-8, 8-5 in conference) 83-74. It wasn't just that the Owls got win number 16, guaranteeing that the team will finish with a winning season in the regular season. It wasn't just that the Owls played perhaps the best half of basketball they've played in several seasons.

The magical thing was this: With the win, Owls head coach Ben Braun entered some rarified air occupied by some of the greatest NCAA basketball coaches ever. The win was the 600th of Braun's career, a rather remarkable accomplishment for a man who has never coached what is considered a basketball powerhouse.

But Braun didn't want to talk about win number 600 afterwards. He didn't want to reflect. The season's not over, his career's not over. There are far more important things with which he must first deal. Like getting through this season.

"I just never have allowed myself, before, during and even now after, to really reflect much of that," he said after the game. "Those are milestones that someday you might look back on, but as a coach, you can't allow -- I can't allow myself to even think about because I've got a team to coach. I can't worry about career victories and what that means. What only matters to me is how our team's playing and maximizing our team's potential. So I'm going to continue to do that."

Still, this is something that should be celebrated. Maybe not by Braun, but by Rice fans. And by basketball fans because it's a rather remarkable little feat if one thinks about it. Winning 600 games. That's easy for a Dean Smith. Or a Bobby Knight. But the closest that Braun's ever come to coaching an NCAA basketball powerhouse is the Cal Bears, and he took over a program that was on probation and steered them into the NCAA tournament on multiple occasions. And when he was dismissed, he immediately jumped into the Rice job, a job that was far less prestigious than what he had with Cal.

Former Houston Cougar head coach Tom Penders is a member of the 600-win club, and he's willing to look back and reflect upon Braun's career. Penders calls Braun classy, a stand-up guy, who Penders admires for taking on challenge after challenge during his coaching career, something, Penders says, most coaches refuse to do.

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John Royal
Ben Braun on the bench, talking to his assistants.
"He's a proven winner," Penders told Hair Balls earlier this week. "I respect all guys who've lasted and have won and won at different places. That's more impressive to me than anything about Ben. I saw him first when he was the coach at Eastern Michigan and liked the way they played. And then he went to Cal and played a real up-tempo NBA-style of basketball because he had that kind of talent.

Penders thinks that Braun loves the challenge of coaching at a school like Rice, of going to places where teaching the game matters.

"He's a great teacher," Penders says. "And when you go against him, you have to be prepared to attack man, zone, he tweaks his offense for every opponent. Scouting him, his team at Rice, is a chore because he throws so many things at you when he knows he's an underdog or doesn't quite have the athletes that you might have. That's usually the case at Rice, they don't have the athleticism -- to win, you have to be well-coached, and Ben does that."

And all of that was evident on Wednesday night. The Knights soared out to their huge first-half lead because they shot 70.4-percent from the floor, including 66.7-percent from behind the three-point line. So at the half, Braun told his guys that if they upped their defensive pressure, they would win the game because there was just no way a team could continue shooting like UCF was doing.

UCF is "very talented, so for our team to battle back -- we made adjustments at half," Braun said. "I asked our players to make a couple of adjustments. I said, 'Guys, just believe in the adjustments and we'll chip back in. Things are going to turn. We're going to score. But we've got to defend.' And our guys took the challenge. We defended."

There are only three regular season games left for the Owls. And they're three games the Owls need to win if they're going to have any chance of getting a first round bye in the Conference USA tournament. They travel to Southern Miss on Saturday and UTEP next Wednesday before closing out the season by hosting the Cougars next Saturday.

"It was a huge win for us," Braun said. "Especially the way we went out and got it."

But that's not enough. Win number 600 isn't enough. Ben Braun wants much more from his Rice Owls. He wants the team to keep winning through March. It's going to be tough, but then again, Ben Braun didn't get to 600 wins by taking the easy route.

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