As the Rice Owls are only an occasional opponent on the hardwood these days, I have found it harder to casually keep an eye on our nerdy neighbors and their men’s hoops program.
The Owls have an NCAA tournament drought long enough to probably predate the birth of a lot of the Rice team’s parents. The 1969-70 season was the last time the Owls sniffed the NCAA men’s tournament and that year coincided with the expansion of the tournament field to 24 teams. It’s been a while.
A lot of that can be blamed on Rice playing much of this tournament drought in the decrepit Autry Court. As long as I live I’ll never cease to be amused by the fact that a Division 1 basketball arena had a curtain separating the court from rec center courts.
In the last decade Rice improved their facility, debuting Tudor Fieldhouse in late 2008 (a game both members of the Pawdcast attended by donating cans of food stockpiled for Hurricane Ike). The on-court success has been fleeting though.
The Owls’ last head coach Mike Rhoades looked like he was getting close. In Rhoades’ 3rd year (2016-17) the team won 23 games, finished 5th in CUSA and played in the CBI. Modest achievements, but it was an underclassman-heavy team in a league without an established power. Then the VCU job came open and Rhoades, a longtime VCU assistant, left and 80% of the roster (including every key contributor) transferred.
Current head coach Scott Pera, an assistant coach under Rhoades, had the unenviable task of building a roster from complete scratch in 2017. Pera was a longtime high school coach, most notably coaching James Harden at Artesia High School in the Los Angeles area. He parlayed that into a job as Director of Basketball Operations at Arizona State (where Harden played) and was an assistant there until 2012.
In Pera’s first year the Owls were understandably awful and last year at least upgraded to ‘bad’ and finished the year with a 13-19 record.
He’s not the leading scorer but senior Ako Adams is definitely the ‘glue guy’ of this Rice team as one of the few holdovers from the Rhoades years. Adams is 2nd on the team scoring and tied for the team lead with 3.4 assists per game.
The most promising player on this team definitely looks sophomore Trey Murphy III at this point. Murphy, a listed 6’8” guard, is averaging around 7 3-point attempts per game and is making 41.8% of them. As the Owls’ 6th man last year, Murphy also shot over 40% from deep.
Fellow sophomore Drew Peterson is another interesting big guard and he leads the Owls with 6.8 rebounds per game and is also tied with Adams for the team lead in assists. Robert Martin, a senior, even at just a listed 6’6” has been the Owls best true frontcourt player.
Style-wise, the Owls like to go fast and shoot lots and lots of 3-pointers. Through 5 games they’re 45th nationally in Adjusted Tempo and 30th 3-point attempt %. Even though they’re taller than average in the backcourt, Rice has been terrible at crashing the offensive glass (314th- off rebound %) although they’ve been excellent at keeping opponents from grabbing offensive boards (20th- opponent off rebound %).
The Owls have played 5 games to this point, including a win over non-D1 Wayland Baptist, and have a 4-1 record. They were destroyed 91-43 at Arkansas on opening night, but soundly beat (80-61) a solid Penn team in their home opener and beat Northwestern State and UC-Santa Barbara on the road.
Vegas has Houston as a 12.5-point favorite at Rice and KenPom projects this as a 9-point Houston win.
This will be more of a test than the Cougar program will have gotten from either of the last 2 Rice teams. The volatility of a team that plays at a high tempo and takes lot of 3-pointers is something I’m wary about as well, but I don’t think Vegas or KenPom will look foolish when this game is done and dusted.