Marcus Evans is the best basketball player in Conference USA. He might be the best college basketball player in the state of Texas. And about the only way you’re even going to have the chance to watch him is to come down to Rice’s Tudor Fieldhouse and watch him play in person.
Evans, a sophomore guard, was last season’s Conference USA Freshman of the Year. He just also happens to hold the C-USA record after being awarded the conference Freshman of the Week award ten times, including winning it the final six weeks of the season. He also made the conference’s all-defensive team (he averaged 2.2 steals per game), holds the conference record for freshmen by scoring 401 points during conference play and scored in double figures in 31 games.
This season has yet to even start, and already Evans has been named to the Preseason All-Conference USA team as well as to the NBC Sports and College Sports Madness C-USA Preseason Player of the Year.
Rice head coach Mike Rhoades was fond of saying last year that the key for college players, especially for freshmen, was to continue learning the game as the season went on. Especially after freshmen got over the shock of discovering they were no longer automatically the best players on the court like they were in high school. This doesn’t seem to have been a hard adjustment for Evans to make last year, however (Rhoades at times said that Evans didn’t realize he was a freshman). But now comes a new season and the learning process starts all over again.
“I learned last year just how fast of a pace it is coming from high school to college, so conditioning is a huge thing,” Evans said.
The Owls used only eight players for most of the year, and rarely played more than seven of them in a game. So Evans got lots of playing time. And while the team’s 12-20 record was probably a bit of a disappointment, watching Evans play night after night was a revelation. He’s one of those Steph Curry-type players who might look small and slight, yet do everything and do it well.
He played at the shooting guard position for most of the year and averaged 21.4 points per game while shooting 47 percent from the floor and 32 percent from behind the three-point arc. But he’s more than just a jump shooter, as he often drove the lane and took either layups or dished the ball to open teammates. He’s a joy to watch in the open court as he and teammates Marquez Letcher-Ellis, Egor Koulechov and Connor Cashaw were able to push at a fast pace with crisp ball movement, with lots of those fast breaks triggered by an Evans steal.
“It’s really fun playing with a guy like [Letcher-Ellis],” Evans said. “He does so much on the court, offensively and defensively. And I think we have so many unselfish guys that play fast, guys that are good at defending shots. It just makes it that much fun for all of the guys on the court playing that well.”
The Owls promise to be deeper this season, which should allow the team to push the pace more and more during the game. And this season, Evans will shift over to point guard, where he’ll serve as the primary trigger of the offense, getting the ball to teammates.
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“Last year was a little easier because I had a senior like Max [Guercy, last year’s point guard] I was able to lean on and I was able to learn from," Evans said. "The biggest thing this year is understanding that I have guys looking at me and understanding that I have to be that leader on the court at all times, no matter if the game is going well for me, I have to be that leader on that court.”
The core of last season’s very young team is back — Evans, Letcher-Ellis (10.2 points per game, five rebounds per game), Koulechov (16.7 points per game and seven rebounds per game) and Cashaw. Guards Marcus Jackson and Chad Lott, who were expected to play key roles last season, return from injuries and are healthy and ready to contribute. And the lone senior, center Andrew Drone, returns to once again provide an inside presence.
Evans says the goal for the team is to be the best defensive squad of the conference. The Owls have lots of guys who can score, but the better they defend, the more often they can get into transition and run the fast break. And Evans says the team is not looking to continue building this year. It’s looking to win.
There won’t be many Rice games on television this year (so far there are only two games designated for television). So the only way to watch Evans and his teammates is to show up at the games. If Evans takes up from where he left off last season — and if his teammates also continue improving — then he’s going to be fun to watch, and so is this Rice team.