This is not your father’s Rice Owls basketball team. Okay, the team has a losing record (3-6), and it has looked outclassed at times when playing some of the tougher teams on its schedule so far. Yet it’s possible to look at this team and see athleticism and speed. There’s a glimpse of skills never before seen.
But what’s really out there on the court is talent. Genuine, actual talent. And while Rice has had players with skill, or players with speed, or players with athleticism, what Rice hasn’t always had is players who combine all those into one skill set loaded with talent.
The Owls return from finals break on Thursday to host St. Thomas. Including this game, there are four contests to go before Rice hits conference play. There are four games to go for a young team to learn to play together, to make those flashes of excellence seen in every game expand into prolonged bursts that allow the team to do more than just compete, but also to win.
“Our freshmen, I think, thought they were going to come in here and just flat out run the roost,” Rice coach Mike Rhoades said last week. “It doesn’t happen that way. Freshmen learn the hard way. I was the same way. This is really hard; this is tough. You’ve got to stick to the process. We call it ‘honor the process.’ Honor the process of what we’re doing, how we build our culture, our program. Just hang in there, fellas.”
That process Rhoades talks about has been evidenced on the court by a team with lots of ball movement and lots of off-the-ball movement. When the team’s on, the pace is quick but not sloppy. The ball goes down inside to a big man, usually Andrew Drone, who has developed an ability to get the basket and score, which means that when defenders collapse on him, he’s quick to get the ball back outside to one of the guards.
Egor Koulechov, a sophomore transfer from Arizona State, can be deadly from three-point range and averages 18.8 points per game, followed by freshman guard Marcus Evans, who is averaging 18.2 points per game. Then there’s freshman Marquez Letcher-Ellis, a 6-7 freshman forward who so far is mostly gangly arms and legs but who has, at times, been a dynamic player on the court.
Rhoades says the key area for his team to work on is defense, which is a valid point seeing as how the Owls have been torched in several games. But more than that, Rhoades wants his guys trusting the process and learning not to beat themselves.
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“With all of these young guys playing so many minutes, they’re getting experience, but still you have to go through the process,” Rhoades said. “You’ve got to go through the ringer. We don’t want to go through the ringer and learn from a loss. Let’s learn as we go and pull some [wins] out. I think it’s really important, like last year, don’t beat ourselves. We’ve got to really work on that when we get to league play. Don’t beat ourselves and really defend our home court. That’s huge.”
The team has a long way to go before it’s competing for a conference title. The flashes of being a really good basketball team are too short, and are too often followed by prolonged bouts of sloppiness. While this is probably the most athletic, most talented team that Rice basketball has had in a long, long time, it’s still a team of kids that lacks much experience and that doesn’t have much depth.
“This is going to be a hard year,” Rhoades said. “We’re playing eight guys. We have eight scholarship players. A walk-on’s going to have to play…But I love it. I love the coaching part of it. I love like trying to turn Marcus Evans into the player we all think he’s going to be — some days are better than others, but I enjoy that. I enjoy working with Egor Koulechov. That’s the fun part of it. But I want to win, too, though. And we all want to win. But there’s a process to that. You can’t fast-forward the winning. It doesn’t work that way. So the process part of it — I just hope our guys, when they take it on the chin — that we don’t take a step backwards, and learn from it and move forwards.”
The winning can’t be fast-forwarded, but the process leads to victory. And it’s a process that will be led by a group of very young, very talented basketball players. So there’s comfort, Rice fans.