Former Rice head coach Mike Rhoades and former Rice guard Marcus Evans in happier days for Rice basketball.
Former Rice head coach Mike Rhoades and former Rice guard Marcus Evans in happier days for Rice basketball.
John Royal

After Rice Basketball Coach Leaves, Star Players Follow Him Out the Door

John Lennon once sang about watching the wheels go round and round, and how he loved to watch them roll. But ask a fan of Rice sports about what it's like to watch the men's basketball team circle around in mediocrity, and you'd probably get a different answer.

Last week the team's future looked bright. The Owls finished with 23 wins and had some success in the postseason. They were losing just one player to graduation and had plenty of talented juniors and sophomores. And they had a coach who finally understood how to find success at Rice.

A lot can change in a week. After Rice was eliminated from the CBI, head coach Mike Rhoades decamped for Virginia Commonwealth. Guard Marcus Jackson will graduate in may, but still has a year of NCAA eligibility left. But he's decided to play somewhere else. The same goes for forward Egor Koulehov, who on Wednesday announced that he would be leaving Rice either to turn professional overseas or to play another year as a graduate transfer. Sophomore Marquez Letcher-Ellis said he's also transferring.

So that future for Rice basketball that looked so bright? It’s gone. It’s back to the starting point, as it always is when Rice starts to get good.

It would be unfair to blame Rhoades or the departing players. Rhoades returns to VCU, where he was an assistant to head coach Shaka Smart when VCU made the Final Four. And now he goes from a middling program in one of the worst conferences in college basketball to be the head coach of one of the pre-eminent mid-major programs in the country. It's a step up, and that's almost always what coaches do. And Jackson and Koulechov will have earned their degrees, so why would they be held at Rice?

As for Marcus Evans, Letcher-Ellis and Corey Douglas? The reality is simple: There is only so much a player can accomplish playing for Rice in Conference USA. It's at best a one-bid NCAA Tournament conference that is largely ignored by gifted athletes, coaches, media and fans. Evans, in particular, has proven himself as perhaps the best player in the conference, so the next step is testing himself against better competition.

It's a maddening occurrence for Rice fans, though, who had to watch this occur about five years ago, when almost immediately after some regular season success and a postseason berth, the best players on the squad transferred out en masse to better programs.

This is not just something that happens at Rice. Kelvin Sampson and the Houston Cougars were barely able to field a squad in his first season as UH coach after the program saw multiple players transfer to other colleges after the firing of James Dickey. UH has been rebuilding (two straight NIT bids), but it's frustrating for fans and alumni who have to constantly watch teams being rebuilt time and time again, particularly for a program like Rice that has had limited success, and even more so for UH, which has been struggling to return to national prominence since the mid-1980s.

So now it starts all over for the Rice Owls. Just like with John Lennon, watching the wheels go round and round but never really getting anywhere.

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