Twenty-two games into the 2015-2016 season, the Rice men’s basketball team sported a 7-15 record and a 2-6 mark in Conference USA. The team had lost crucial players in the frontcourt and backcourt, and there was little hope of a Conference USA crown and NCAA tournament appearance.

Now, 22 games into the 20-2017 season, the Owls are 14-8 overall and 4-5 in C-USA. Head coach Mike Rhoades starts two players, sophomore guard Marcus Evans and junior forward Egor Koulechov, who both average more than 18 points per game. As many as 11 players are receiving valuable minutes every week. Enlarged and electrified crowds at Tudor Fieldhouse support the team’s belief that this Rice team can legitimately contend for the C-USA title.

Last Saturday’s victory against the University of North Carolina, Charlotte epitomized the growth this Rice men’s basketball team has made. Last year, the Owls lost both of their season meetings as well as a conference tournament showdown to the 49ers. This year, Rice has defeated Charlotte in both of their encounters.

Rhoades said his team is focusing more on its own play instead of its opponents, keeping last season’s disappoints in the background.

“If you are a competitor, you remember the last time you play a team, win or lose,” Rhoades said. “Last year, they beat us pretty good. Regardless, I think it is more about how we play, not who we play. Losing last year doesn’t help us the next one.”

The Owls have been able to focus on their playing style with increased talent and depth on this season’s roster. According to Rhoades, the Owls are capable of giving ten players significant playing time.

“I want to get ten players over ten minutes. It creates great competition and morale,” Rhoades said. “Guys like [freshman forward] Tim [Harrison], [freshman forward] Austin [Meyer] and [junior forward] Bishop [Mency] are just coming into their own on the court and we want to get them as much game action and possible.”

Despite Rhoades’ effort to disperse playing time, the Owls’ are likely to continue to relying on the playmaking abilities of Evans, Koulechov and sophomore guard Connor Cashaw. According to Rhoades, Koulechov offers Rice a dynamic scoring threat at forward.

“He can shoot threes or he can loosen up with some dribble moves and get to the basket,” Rhoades said. “We have so many playmakers on our team. Combining them with a versatile four-man is lethal. I wouldn’t want to guard him.”

Although the Owls are ripe with dynamic playmaking and crisp shooting, several Rice players emphasized team chemistry, focus, and grit over the course of a long season. Cashaw said his team cannot afford to relax if it wants to compete for a conference championship.

“We have to build our chemistry and recognize what each player can do,” Cashaw said. “We cannot take reps off in practice. We have to handle losses and take them as a learning experience.”

Other teammates have echoed similar sentiments. According to Evans, the Owls must provide maximum effort and intensity each game.

“Little hustle plays can completely change the outcome of the game,” Evans said. “The effort players like [freshman guard] Chad [Lott] demonstrates energizes our team and makes everybody excited.”

With nine games left in the conference season, this Rice team is anything but complacent. Coaches and players alike emphasized treating each game as the last game of the year. Evans said his teammates should not take their newfound success for granted.

“In our league, any team can catch fire no matter what their record is,” Evans said. “We have to be equally prepared for any opponent we face on the floor.”

As a coach who dreams of a gritty, devoted student fan base, Rhoades is not willing to accept this season’s improved results. Rhoades said his message is simple: This Owls squad will always play with a chip on their shoulder.

“It is really hard to win on the road no matter who you play,” Rhoades said. “Every team has talented players no matter what their record. We have been a bottom-feeder for so long and no team is afraid of us. We have to prove ourselves every time we go out on the court.”

The Owls will have yet another chance to prove themselves when they take the court Saturday, Feb. 4 in Denton, Texas against the University of North Texas (6-15).