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Men's basketball pushing for conference tournament bye

Photo by Rice Student Media | and Rice Student Media The Rice Thresher

By Andrew Grottkau     2/20/17 10:10pm

Rice’s men’s basketball team is currently in the midst of one of its best-ever seasons. If the Owls can win one of their final four regular season games, they will have their most conference wins since joining Conference USA in 2005. Despite the success, the team still has work to do in the final weeks of the season. If Rice can finish in the top four of the regular season standings, it will earn a bye to the quarterfinals in the conference tournament. This past weekend, Rice split its two home contests, beating the University of Texas, San Antonio and falling to the University of Texas, El Paso.

Rice entered its game on Thursday against the University of Texas, San Antonio with a record of 7-5 in C-USA. Riding a four-game winning streak, the Owls had a chance to move into a tie for third in the conference with a victory. After pulling away late in the second half, Rice did just that, coming away with a 80-68 win over the Roadrunners to move into position to earn a tournament bye. Sophomore guard Marcus Evans led the team with 26 points and six assists and junior forward Egor Koulechov added eight rebounds. Head coach Mike Rhoades said he was impressed with Rice’s ability to turn the game around after a mediocre first half.

"I'm really proud of our guys," Rhoades said. "We didn't shoot well in the first half, so we were fighting it. We changed up our defense in the second half and that helped us.”

Saturday night, the Owls faced a test against the University of Texas, El Paso. The Miners came into Tudor Fieldhouse with an 8-5 record in C-USA to match Rice in a tie for third place in the conference. The winning team would have the inside track to a tournament bye. Unfortunately for Rice, the Owls put up their worst shooting performance of the season, shooting just 34.5 percent and falling 79-71 to UTEP. The loss dropped Rice to 8-6 in C-USA, good for fifth place and just one spot outside the cutoff for a bye. Freshman guard Chad Lott was a bright spot in the loss. He put up a career-high 13 points and added seven rebounds and four assists. Head coach Mike Rhoades said he was more disappointed in the Owls’ defense than their shooting.

“This was the first time in awhile that we were inconsistent on the defensive end,” Rhoades said. “A lot of our missed shots in the first half affected our defense. In the second half, we didn't do a good job of getting stops."

Moving forward, the Owls will have to work hard to move up in the standings. Six teams, including Rice, have records between 9-5 and 7-7 in the conference, and only two of those teams can finish in the top four. Rice is currently in fifth, one game behind Old Dominion University and UTEP. Those schools each have 9-5 records and hold the third and fourth spots in the conference. Additionally, both Old Dominion and UTEP hold the tiebreaker over Rice because each beat the Owls head to head.

Rice’s schedule for the rest of the regular season is also difficult. The Owls play four more games, two at home and two on the road. The first game is at home against the University of Southern Mississippi, which ranks 12th in the conference. After that game, however, the Owls face the second ranked team in the conference, Louisiana Tech University, at home and the sixth and eighth ranked conference teams, Marshall University and Western Kentucky University, on the road.

Once the regular season is over, Rice will move on to the Conference USA tournament in Birmingham, Alabama. The winner of the conference tournament will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, the massive field of 68 to determine a national champion. Right now, conference leader Middle Tennessee State University is the favorite, with just one loss in C-USA play.

Given the difficult schedule down the stretch, Rice has a lot of work to do to earn a conference tournament bye. If they can, however, the Owls will be just three wins away from advancing to the NCAA tournament. The next step toward that goal will take place Thursday night at Tudor Fieldhouse when Rice hosts Southern Miss at 7 p.m.

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