Rice men’s basketball entered 2017 with a chance to open a new chapter in the program’s history. So far, the year has not gone as planned. After a 10-3 start to the season in nonconference play, the Owls have gone just 1-3 in their first four Conference USA games.
The fault does not lie with Rice’s stars. Sophomore guard Marcus Evans and junior guard Egor Koulechov have averaged 20.8 and 23.0 points per game, respectively, in the four conference matchups. The duo is arguably one of the better backcourts in the NCAA, and it continues to carry the team. Koulechov put up 31 points and 14 rebounds in a tight 80-77 loss to C-USA leader Middle Tennessee State University and added 29 points in an 88-81 loss to the defending regular season champion, the University of Alabama, Birmingham. Evans has scored under 20 points just once in conference play.
The problem is, while Evans and Koulechov have combined to average nearly 44 points per game, the rest of the team combined is averaging just 32 points per game over the last four games. It helps to have two stars. But two stars cannot win a game of five-on-five basketball on their own.
This year was supposed to be the year Rice took its next big step forward. The Owls were returning the majority of their contributors from last season, and they were adding talent across the board. Junior guard Marcus Jackson was returning from a season-ending injury, as was redshirt freshman guard Chad Lott. With senior forward Andrew Drone and sophomore forward Marquez Letcher-Ellis returning in the frontcourt and sophomore guard Connor Cashaw returning in the backcourt, Rice was expected to be able to lean on its depth all year in addition to Evans and Koulechov.
That recipe worked for much of the nonconference season. Although Lott had to knock off some rust in his return from injury, Jackson and Cashaw excelled in the backcourt as secondary options. In the nonconference season, Jackson put up 13.7 points per game and Cashaw added 8.4 points per game. In conference play, those numbers have decreased to 10.0 and 7.3, respectively. While points are far from the only way to measure production (Cashaw, for instance, has put up seven rebounds twice in conference play), it is much easier for the defense to succeed when it knows Rice is relying on Evans and Koulechov to score.
Outside of Evans, Koulechov, Jackson and Cashaw, no Owl is scoring more than seven points per game. It is telling that in Rice’s only conference win, an 89-70 victory over the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, five players scored in double figures. In Rice’s three losses, no more than three players have scored in double figures.
Of course, Rice has yet to take a “bad” loss. So far, the Owls have fallen to Old Dominion University, Middle Tennessee and UAB, three teams expected to contend for the conference title. Each of those games has been close. If Rice hopes to win the conference and advance to the NCAA Tournament, it will have to beat those teams, not just lose close games.
It is easy to see that Rice basketball is good. If it wants to be great, however, it should not look to its standout duo. Rather, it must rely on the other players. Sure, guys like Jackson, Letcher-Ellis and Cashaw may not make headlines if Rice makes a run in the conference tournament. But those depth players may be largely responsible for the Owls’ success if that run happens.