It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
The day after the Rice men’s basketball team concluded its first 23-win season in over 60 years, the news broke: Head coach Mike Rhoades was leaving to take over the reins at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he had served as an assistant under Shaka Smart from 2009-2014.
Rice was left without the coach who had led the team to its second-most wins in a season, ever. Though the abruptness of the move came as a bit of a shock, the fans most familiar with Rhoades weren’t too surprised to hear the news, given that he had spent the first 18 years of his career in and around Richmond.
“I always knew that if that job was going to come up, he was going [to take it],” Jeremy Reiskind, former president of Rice Rally Club, said. “It’s home for him … I could see him staying there for the rest of his career.”
Expected or not, Rhoades’ departure stings quite a bit. His impact on the program when he took over in 2014 was tangible and immediate. Though Rice was a seven-win team the year before he arrived, many were pegging it as an early favorite to win Conference USA next year in what would have been just his fourth season at the helm.
Effect of departure of players
Perhaps even worse than his departure, however, is the mass exodus of talent that’s come in the wake of his announcement. Rice was expected to return all five starters and all of its most important bench contributors. Unfortunately for the Owls, sophomore guard Marcus Evans, junior forward Egor Koulechov, junior guard Marcus Jackson and freshman forward Corey Douglas have all officially announced that they’re transferring. Sophomore forward Marquez Letcher-Ellis is also likely to depart, so the team is losing a majority of its key players.
Losing them leaves the team with just one regular starter in sophomore guard Connor Cashaw, which is quite a stark contrast from what might have been. If the Rhoades departure stung, these transfer announcements are like five consecutive bee stings stacked on the same spot.
Rice students and fans alike have reacted with varying levels of optimism, but a constant trend across the board is the feeling of disappointment for what could have been.
“It’s rough as a fan,” Pax Kaplan-Sherman, a junior and regular attendee of home games, said. “They were a really fun team to watch, and I really got behind them, got invested in their success … It’s just really disappointing to see the team disband so quickly.”
And yet, even in the midst of this difficult and somewhat unexpected transition, there are some signs of hope. Coming off a season in which he started every game, Cashaw averaged eight points and 5.3 rebounds in his 26 minutes. With him stepping into a more prominent role on offense and as a leader of the team, Rice is putting its trust in the hands of an experienced and skilled guard.
“He’s going to have to take on a lot bigger role, but I think that he’s grown into more of a scorer [this year],” Courtney Brown, a former women’s basketball player for Rice, said. “I think he’ll be fine with it; he’s a really strong guard.”
And though it may seem the contrary, he won’t have to do it alone: key contributor and redshirt freshman Chad Lott is expected to return next year as well. Coming off of his first season after a year lost to a torn knee ligament, Lott averaged 5.8 points per game and came into his own towards the end of the year as Rice’s sixth man.
“Chad’s development over this past year was really phenomenal,” Reiskind said. “He developed a jump shot. I think he’s going to step into a much more prominent role moving forward.”
With these two and a few other contributors returning, new head coach Scott Pera has the foundation upon which to build for the future. The next step, which will likely determine the team’s success in the coming years, is to recruit a strong freshman class for next season. Luckily for Rice, Pera has a bit of experience in that area: He’s helped recruit at each of his previous career stops and was responsible for bringing in James Harden to Arizona State in 2007.
What’s more, players and fans alike seem to agree that the Pera hiring was a great long-term move for the program. Though the passing of the torch didn’t come under the best of circumstances, there’s a great deal of optimism surrounding his ability to steer the program in the right direction for years to come.
“He has a great head on his shoulders, he understands Rice, and he’s a coach that’s going to be here for the long haul,” Reiskind said.
Rice fans certainly hope so. After an incredibly exciting season, they’ve gotten a taste for success at Tudor Fieldhouse, and they’re hungry for more moving forward. Luckily for them, even in the midst of a disappointing turn of events, there’s a bright future for Rice basketball — it just may be coming a few years behind schedule.