Last year, Rice men’s basketball had one of the best seasons in the history of the program. The Owls went 23-12, reaching the quarterfinals of the Conference USA tournament and receiving a bid to the College Basketball Invitational. Both sophomore guard Marcus Evans and junior swingman Egor Koulechov were named to the All C-USA First Team — the first set of Owls teammates to be selected First Team All-Conference since 1954. In short, prospects were good for Owls basketball.
But after last year’s success came a tough start to the offseason for the Owls. Head coach Mike Rhoades resigned to take the same position at Virginia Commonwealth University, and both Evans and Koulechov announced their plans to transfer, joining junior guard Marcus Jackson and freshman forward Corey Douglas on the list of departing Owls. A talented team that had been filled with promise now faced an uncertain future.
On March 25, Scott Pera was introduced as the new head coach, the first step in making the Owls’ future a more tangible reality. Pera had been the Owls’ associate head coach for the past three years after having spent the previous eight years serving as an assistant coach at Arizona State and Penn, following a successful high school coaching career during which Pera’s teams won 258 games and two California state championships. At Pera’s official introduction, Director of Athletics Joe Karlgaard said the choice of new head coach was clear.
“We had two big goals as we launched our search [for a new coach]: One was to keep the culture and philosophy of the program intact, and the second was to continue the push of positive momentum that we’ve generated over the last three years,” Karlgaard said. “It didn’t take us very long to figure out what we needed to do.”
Pera became the 27th men’s basketball coach in the history of Rice men’s basketball, dating back to 1914. Though the program hasn’t quite been a powerhouse, it has experienced its share of success: The Owls have won 10 conference championships and reached four NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 1954. Pera said he’s proud of the school and its history.
“I think it’s just an honor for me to represent Rice University,” Pera said. “I have such tremendous respect for what it stands for, the students that attend here, and the guys who we recruit.”
Over the summer, Pera and his staff retooled their roster, adding graduate transfers in guard A.J. Lapray and forward Dylan Jones, as well as sophomore guard Josh Parrish from Texas Christian University, and three freshmen in guards Najja Hunter and Miles Lester and forward Malik Osborne. According to Pera, the efforts to replace their four departing starters were successful.
“We did a really good job of replacing those guys,” Pera said. “Obviously, Marcus [Evans] and Egor [Koulechov] and [Jackson] have [left] huge shoes to fill, but we replaced them with some veteran leaders like A.J. Lapray and Dylan Jones, and some very talented freshmen.”
Parrish won’t be able to play this year due to transfer restrictions, but Pera said that he will also play an important part when he returns.
“He’s going to be an excellent addition when he’s eligible,” Pera said.
Given the Owls high roster turnover, there will be lots of players adjusting to Rice’s system. According to Pera, the team has been working on integrating new players during the offseason by focusing on consistent improvement.
“Every day we just try to get better than the day before: I try not to have [the players] look too far ahead,” Pera said. “Improvement from day to day, week to week, and hopefully month to month: That’s been our focus.”
That’s not to say that Pera doesn’t have long-term plans for Owls basketball. According to him, the future is bright.
“We want to become a consistent contender in Conference USA, year to year,” Pera said. “Obviously, we’ll strive for that this year, but I think moving forward and looking at the big picture — that is our goal. We are excited about the future, we are excited about the present and we can’t wait to get started.”
The Owls play an exhibition game this Saturday against Wayland Baptist University before opening their season at home on Nov. 10 against Eastern Kentucky University.