After Rice men’s basketball’s 88-81 upset win over Louisiana Tech University, head coach Mike Rhoades, smiling ear to ear, lifted his daughter up in a bear hug and spun her around. His players, equally big smiles on their faces, hugged and celebrated as they lined up to sing Rice’s alma mater. It was the sort of scene normally reserved for a championship victory. For Rice, it might as well have been just that. Saturday’s win over the Bulldogs validated the Owls’ season as one of the best in school history regardless of how the team fares the rest of the way.
Tudor Fieldhouse was rocking on Saturday night. That’s the first time I’ve been able to say that with a straight face since I arrived on campus in the fall of 2015. Fans filled even the upper decks of the stands, nearly all of them supporting the Owls. The crowd knew what the game meant to Rice. If the Owls could pull off the upset over Louisiana Tech, the No. 2 team in the conference, they would have a 20-win season for the first time in 13 years.
Rice did just that. After surviving the Bulldogs’ hot shooting in the first half, the Owls held a 49-48 edge at the break. Then, a chippy second half — culminating with an altercation between a Louisiana Tech player and a few Rice fans — came down to the wire. The home team did not disappoint. Junior guard Marcus Jackson put the Owls ahead for good with a 3-pointer with just over four minutes to go and Rice hung on for the seven-point victory.
As the buzzer sounded, it was clear: Rice Rising is real. If the thousands of cheering fans and the giddy team weren’t enough to convince people of that, all anyone had to do was look at the standings. When Rhoades took over, the team was coming off seasons with totals of five and seven wins. Now, Rice is a 20-win team that CBS college basketball insider Jon Rothstein said he believes has a chance to win the conference tournament.
The turnaround is nothing short of spectacular. In some cases, the word “never” can be overused. When I say that Rice has never had a strong basketball program, I mean it. In its entire history, Rice has won two NCAA tournament games. Those wins came in 1940 and 1954 and were in regional third-place games, meaning that Rice lost its opening game of the tournament before winning a consolation game. The last time the Owls were in the NCAA Tournament was 1970, the year after the first moon landing. Since that time, Rice has appeared in the lower-tier National Invitation Tournament four times and has won just a single game. It has been the laughingstock of C-USA for most of the past decade.
With junior guard Egor Koulechov and sophomore guard Marcus Evans leading the way, this Owls squad has made itself one of the conference’s top teams. Rice has had just eight 20-win seasons in school history, and this year is one of them. For that reason, we should appreciate this team. Sure, the season might not end with an NCAA Tournament berth or even an NIT appearance. But this team is competitive and talented. It is fun to watch. And most of all, it has finally given fans a reason to cheer.
Perhaps the best part about this season is that the team should be even better next year. Senior forward Andrew Drone is the only Owl set to leave the program. Armed with one more year of experience under their belts, Evans and Koulechov could be an even more talented duo. Furthermore, freshman forward Corey Douglas is set to return from injury and another recruiting class is going to join the squad. With these additions, next year’s team could be more talented than this year's.
Saturday night in Tudor Fieldhouse, for the first time in my two years (and, I assume, for at least a few years before that), Rice felt like a basketball school. As long as Rhoades stays at the helm, it may feel that way for a while longer. His commitment to building not only a basketball program but a university-wide culture that supports Rice basketball has succeeded in just his third year as head coach. Give him a few more years and who knows where he might bring this team. I, for one, am excited to find out.