With four returning starters, two key players returning from injury and a host of talented freshmen, head coach Mike Rhoades and the Rice men's basketball team enter the 2016-17 season with heightened expectations.
Rhoades said he hopes to build on a 2015-16 campaign that saw the Owls notch a 12-20 record, including a 7-11 record in Conference-USA. According to Rhoades, changing the culture has been a catalyst for success.
“These are guys that want to play college basketball,” Rhoades said. “They want a great school. They appreciate being here at a great school. That helps the culture."
Over the past two years, Rhoades has attempted to implement the “HAVOC” system, which he developed as an associate head coach at Virginia Commonwealth University. “HAVOC” is a defensive system that employs an aggressive full-court press designed to pressure the opponent to turn the ball over. According to Rhoades, depth and talent issues have plagued the system. However, he also said the return of redshirt junior guard Marcus Jackson and redshirt freshman guard Chad Lott from season-ending injuries last year will increase the effectiveness of “HAVOC” this season.
"Having [Jackson and Lott] back now, fully healed, 100 percent, helps our depth and positioning," Rhoades said. "They are a credit to our needs. Not just depth, but position as well. We have guys that can play multiple positions. Getting those two guys back for leadership, toughness and maturity is huge for us."
The Owls return seven players from last year's team. Sophomore guard Marcus Evans, who started all 32 games last year for Rice as a freshman, has been thrust into the spotlight after a stellar 2015-16 campaign. Last year, Evans was selected as First-Team All Conference USA and Conference USA Freshman of the Year after leading all freshmen in the nation in scoring with 21.4 points per game. Still, Rhoades said, Evans has been striving to improve his game and to adjust to his new role as the team’s point guard.
"He is learning to get guys shots as much as he can get his own shot,” Rhoades said. “He is doing a great job of making sure guys are in the right place in the right time, getting good shooters like Marcus [Jackson] and Egor [Koulechov] good shots. He is capable of having big nights for us."
Evans said Rhoades has pushed him to become more selfless and more team-oriented.
“What I need to work on is making my teammates better, getting them involved,” Evans said. “Coach knows we will be a better team if everyone contributes. That is what I worked on the most over the summer."
Evans's shift in focus from go-get-your-own-shot to assisting teammates has been driven by the addition of fellow class of 2019 recruit Lott. Last year, Evans mostly played at the shooting guard position. However, because Lott is most comfortable at shooting guard, Evans will instead play more at point guard, a position more naturally geared toward a facilitating role. Evans said there should be no issues in adjusting to the new lineup.
"[Lott] is a selfless guy — he will do anything for the team,” Evans said. “We both just want to win, and I think we will work well on the floor together."
Although the Owls return four starters, only center Andrew Drone is a senior. Drone said the transition over the past several years has been an opportunity for growth.
“It is mostly leading by example,” Drone said. “We have to keep our heads up. The young guys will try to emulate us."
The combination of leadership, talent and depth has created a buzz around the Owls' basketball team. National media outlets such as College Basketball Madness have picked Evans to be the Conference USA Player of the Year and have picked the Owls to improve upon last season’s tenth place finish. Rhoades said he hopes the excitement translates into rousing fan turnout every Rice home game.
"We have 17 home games, which is great for our students," Rhoades said. "Our culture is not just about our team — it’s about our students. We want basketball to be a place-to-be for our students. We want them to put their books away and spend two hours going crazy.”
Rhoades said an enthusiastic student body will be necessary to motivate a team that is bound to endure difficult stretches due to youth and inexperience. However, he said the Owls must maintain optimism in order to achieve success.
"I really like what we have in preseason," Rhoades said. "We are better this year; we are more talented. There will be games where we take some lumps this year, but there will be some games where we surprise some people, where they say ‘Hey, these guys can play.’ If we put it all together, I think the sky's the limit."
The Owls open their season on Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. in a preseason game against Our Lady of the Lake University.