The saying around Rice sports is “Rice Fight, Never Die.” And no matter how things are going with the basketball program, it’s always evident that head coach Mike Rhoades’s team always fights and never dies. But unfortunately for the team and its fans, while the team’s always fighting, what it’s not doing is winning games.
This version of the Owls is undersized. The Owls need to play nearly perfect games every time out, with every player on the court scoring points and locking down on defense. It’s one of the more talented Rice teams in years. There’s athleticism and good basketball IQ. But it’s a young team, with three of the guys in the seven-man rotation being freshmen.
Such was the case last night against UAB, when the visiting Owls lost 82-70. UAB (16-3, 6-0 in conference), the best team in C-USA so far this season, was another of those games that saw the Owls face a deeper, more athletic squad. The Owls trailed most of the game, yet UAB never pulled away, and Rice came from a ten-point halftime deficit to take a lead early in the second half. But as so often happens, the hill to climb was just too high, too far. The team fought and didn’t die. But fighting and living just wasn’t enough.
The Owls' record now stands at 6-13 (1-5 in conference). The team sits toward the bottom of the Conference USA standings. So looking at that record, it’s hard to see the improvement. But Rhoades sees it and he’s the coach, and, for right now, that’s what matters.
“We’ve just got to keep grinding,” Rhoades said after last Saturday’s 94-90 loss to Marshall. “I don’t care about our record right now. All I care about is that we’re moving forward and we’re not beating ourselves, and we didn’t. Now we didn’t pull it off, and I hate losing, but we’ve raised the bar. Now we see if can raise it again.”
The players doing the most grinding, showing the biggest improvement, giving the most hope for the future to Rice fans, are freshman guard Marcus Evans and freshman forward Marquez Letcher-Ellis. Evans, averaging 20.2 points per game, has been C-USA’s freshman of the week four times this season. Letcher-Ellis, averaging 10.1 points per game, was the conference freshman of the week last week after scoring 20 points in the team’s victory over Western Kentucky and 28 points in the loss to Marshall (Evans was held to just 14 points last night while Letcher-Ellis finished with 12).
“The thing about Marquez,” Rhoades said “ [is] in the past month, month and a half, he has put in extra work on his game, especially with [assistant coach J.D.] Byers, one of our assistants. He’s worked hard on his handle, on his finishing and on his shooting. And every game out, he’s becoming more confident and more aggressive, and just — really happy because there’s a great example where you don’t just show up and think it’s going to come your way. You’ve got to work.”
Letcher-Ellis is still undersized, still needing to put on about 15-20 pounds before he becomes the player he’s projected to be in the future. And he realizes that he still needs to put in lots of work because he’s discovered the reality of the truism of just how good a kid has to be to play college basketball.
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“Coming in, everybody tells you college is on a different level,” Letcher-Ellis says. “You’re a freshman and you’re playing against seniors, guys who have been doing this four years, some five. Really big, strong guys. Everybody’s athletic on this level; everybody can play. As young guys, getting thrown in the fire real quick, you realize how different the game is. We both [he and Evans] played on really good teams, and were really good players in high school. It’s just that everybody on the college level is pretty good, too.”
And then there’s Marcus Evans, who always appears to be one of the best players on the court and has quickly become Rice’s No. 1 option to make a big play.
“Marcus is a talented player,” Rhoades said. “But he’s so competitive, and he has a great edge — even for a freshman, with great confidence. He plays a lot of minutes as a freshman, so we give him great freedom. If he keeps continuing to become more coachable, and he keeps playing and making his teammates better, all of these good things are going to come for him. We all know he can score and make plays and steals, and as he makes the game easier and easier, which — all freshmen make the game hard — he’s going to get better and better. I really enjoy coaching him because he wants to improve, he wants to win really bad.”
It’s got to be hard for Rice fans, seeing the team lose game after game, year after year while being told every year to wait until next year. But there is talent on this team. Evans and Letcher-Ellis are fun to watch on the court, and they’re only getting better from game to game.