Rice basketball fans have heard it all before. That this season is going to be different. That this is the year the Owls get it together. That there’s a reason to be excited because the Owls are going to rise to the challenge. It’s all been said before, many times, for many years, and nothing has ever changed.
It’s been losing season after losing season, the only change being the type of losing and the competition to which the team is losing. The style of play has changed from time to time, from fast to slow and from defensive-minded to three-point finesse guys. Rice fans have heard all it before.
“We’re excited for this season,” Rice head coach Mike Rhoades said several weeks ago. ‘We definitely have a huge feat ahead of us. We have some early games [Cal and Oregon State] in the season that are really — will build us and challenge us. We’re really excited for that. I’m excited. Our guys are fired up to get going pretty soon.”
So maybe what Rhoades says has been said before. And maybe Rice fans are a little jaded and tired of hearing the same old thing. But here’s the thing. These Rice Owls aren’t the same old thing. Not as long as Rhoades has anything to say about it, that is.
Sure Rice finished last season 12-20. But if you went to the games (and there aren’t really that many people who did venture out to Rice last season) you would have noticed one very important thing: the Owls lost a lot of games, but they were never really blown out. Rice was undermanned every game. The team played with a short bench against teams with better athletes just about every game, yet were in just about every game.
This happened because the guys bought into what Rhoades was selling. About working harder during the practice, so hard that the actual games were fun because then they were just playing. And the key guys from last year, those who didn’t graduate, they’re back this year. Back this year because they want to finish what they started.
“We have guys who have been through it before…” Rhoades said. “They’ve been super, just buying into everything on and off the court, in what we want to do in building our culture. I think they’ve done an unbelievable job in bringing all of these new faces that came here in the summer — they’ve done a great job of just really pulling them along, explaining to them why we do things, the way we do things, and why we do them so hard. The young guys have bought into it very quickly. It’s really neat to see that."
The fans didn’t really get the full Mike Rhoades experience last season, the fast break, full court press for 40 minutes game that Rhoades wants to instill and that he learned while an assistant to Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth. The bench just wasn’t deep enough, so his guys played slower, more disciplined, breaking out the traps and presses only on a limited basis.
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“We’re still not as deep as I want to be, but we’re getting closer,” Rhoades said about this upcoming season. “We definitely have a lot of young freshmen who can press, and they’re athletic, and they can cover ground and guard the basketball. We’re definitely going to press more, and trap more, and get after it. I’m excited about that. We’re longer, we’re more athletic, and we have a deeper bench. If you want to play faster and get after people, you need people who can help each other out by substituting in and playing different lineups.”
But just last weekend the Owls depth took a major hit as two of the team's major pieces, Marcus Jackson and Chad Lott, tore meniscus over the weekend. Lott could be back by New Year's, but Jackson, one of the key returning upperclassmen, is out for an undetermined amount of time after having surgery yesterday. So while Rice wants to start going more uptempo, with more pressing and more trapping, it might instead find itself having to slow it up more than it wants because of the injuries.
So sure maybe Rice fans have heard the promises before, promises of a better team, a more athletic team, a team that’s going to win games. And with the early injuries hurting the depth and the athleticism, it's kind of hard to see just how it will be better. But there’s an enthusiasm to Rhoades, an enthusiasm to his players not seen much around Rice in years past. It’s an enthusiasm that got them through last season, that kept them in games when they should’ve been blown out.
Is this year different? It’s time to find out. The Owls tip off in Berkeley against Cal tonight and play in San Francisco on Monday. Then it’s back to Houston and next Thursday night when the team hosts Oregon State. Then maybe the fans will start getting some answers.