I know it’s early, but wow. What Rice men’s basketball did to James Madison University on Sunday afternoon was nothing short of spectacular. The Owls faced a team that competed for its conference championship last year and absolutely obliterated it. In doing so, Rice validated the preseason hype surrounding the team and gave reason to believe it can compete for the Conference USA title.
One game will not define the Owls’ season, but it is certainly a positive sign. Rice outscored the Dukes 46-40 in the first half; then, after the hosts climbed to within 63-59, the Owls went on a 31-11 run to close out the game and earn a 94-70 victory. Rice shot over 50 percent for the game and forced 25 turnovers while committing only 10.
On the surface, it is an impressive performance, but in context, it is even more encouraging. Last season, Rice’s men’s basketball team lost its first four games of the year. The Owls lost three of those games by 17 points or more, including a 26 point loss to a University of San Francisco team that finished the season just 15-15. This year, the team opened the season with a convincing win over a James Madison squad ranked in the top 150 (out of 351) of the preseason KenPom ratings, a popular metric of comparing college basketball teams. Even better? Rice currently ranks 108th in that metric at the time of publication. The Owls finished last season ranked 273rd. It’s way too early to make any fair judgments based on that ranking, but a 165 spot jump is hard to ignore.
Last season’s team relied heavily on freshmen such as guard Marcus Evans, guard Connor Cashaw and forward Marquez Letcher-Ellis to carry the load. This year, those players are more experienced and mature. It showed against James Madison, as the trio combined for just two turnovers (they combined for an average of more than six per game last season).
Additionally, the Owls added four freshmen who have the potential to contribute immediately. Redshirt freshman guard Chad Lott, freshman guard Ako Adams and freshman forwards Austin Meyer and Corey Douglas all played over 10 minutes in Sunday’s win. While they struggled for the most part, the team no longer needs its freshmen to perform well day in and day out to win games. Rather, it can rely on the other six main contributors in its rotation when the freshmen falter.
I know it’s far too soon to make any fair judgments about where the Owls will finish this year. This win, however, validates the preseason excitement surrounding the team. There will be plenty of growing pains. It is, after all, a very young team. But it is also a very good team. Conference USA looks like it will be extremely competitive this year. The University of Alabama, Birmingham is the favorite to win the conference title. Middle Tennessee State University knocked off Michigan State University, a top-10 team for much of last season, in the NCAA Tournament last year. Old Dominion University, Marshall University and Western Kentucky University will make strong pushes to win the conference championship as well. While the Owls are most likely at least a year away from being one of the top two or three teams in the league, there is little reason to argue they cannot win the conference title this year. And that is very exciting.