John Royal Maurice McNeil hopes to lead the Cougars out to three more wins
The Rice Owls were supposed to be the opposite of the Cougars. The Owls had a returning head coach, Ben Braun, who, while he had yet to get the Owls into the NCAA Tournament, had gotten previous schools into the Big Dance. The team was healthy and, more important, it was the most talented Rice squad in years. They presented a good mix of age and youth, finesse and bulk. And in forward Arsalan Kazemi, the Owls had a player who was good not just by the standards of Conference USA, but by the standards of the nation as a whole.
But when these two teams tip off against their respective opponents tomorrow evening, they find themselves at the exact same point. They're both 4-9 in conference play. Rice is 12-15 overall and UH is 12-14. The Cougars have outplayed their talent at times, and despite the short bench, no true point guard and no go-to scorer, they've found a way to actually be competitive in most of their games. And if the C-USA tournament were to be starting today, then the Cougars would get the final seed.
The Owls have played some inspired ball this season, nearly upsetting the Texas Longhorns, one of the nation's best collegiate basketball programs, early in the season, while demolishing supposedly good teams like LSU, TCU and Memphis. And Kazemi has been everything he was advertised to be. He's a force on the boards who is learning how to get open and make his shots. Yet the Owls have found way after way to self-destruct this season and they have become essentially a nonentity in conference play -- if the tournament started today, the Owls would, as always, be on the outside looking in.
But the tournament doesn't start today, and as of now, each team has three games in which to salvage their seasons and get those spots in the C-USA Tournament. And while it may seem useless to actually make the tournament as a lower seed, the Cougars proved last season that C-USA is a crappy enough conference that any lower-ranked seed can get past the higher seeds and earn that automatic qualifying seed in the tourney.
The Owls have the easier path to traverse. All three remaining games are in Houston, with games against East Carolina and Tulsa set for Tudor Fieldhouse and the regular season ender against the Cougars to be played at Hofheinz Pavilion. ECU (14-13, 6-7) is a team that doesn't really do anything good. They can't shoot the ball, they have trouble behind the three-point arc, their defense is mediocre. They can't rebound, have trouble with turnovers. Tulsa could give Rice problems -- Tulsa should give Rice problems. But Tulsa has been disappointing this season, and they can be beaten. As for the Cougars, well, Rice beat them earlier this season, and there's no reason to think Rice can't do so again. So Rice should be able to close out the season with three wins, which should be enough to get them to El Paso for the conference tournament.
John Royal Rice coach Ben Braun tries to cajole a C-USA Tournament berth out of his team
It really shouldn't be coming down to next Saturday. Not with these two teams. The Cougars just aren't as talented, and they're getting adjusted to a new system. Rice's system is in place, and they've got a talented team. Yet two teams that should be on opposite ends of the standings this season are, instead, at the same spot. Neither team can afford a loss this weekend. Neither team can afford a loss for the rest of the season.
But who knows. Maybe James Dickey can get superhuman performances out of seniors Adam Brown, Maurice McNeil and Zamal Nixon three last times. Maybe Arsalan Kazemi, who has made it clear that he didn't come to the States to lose, will put the Owls on his back and lead them to the promised land.
This is, after all, Conference USA, and in Conference USA, anything is possible. Well, anything but Tulane fielding good teams in football and basketball.
UPDATE: Senior UH guard Adam Brown has been suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules.
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