The first season of head coach Scott Pera’s tenure came to an end over the weekend, as Rice men’s basketball failed to qualify for the Conference USA tournament. The Owls finished the season with a record of 7-24, 4-14 in conference play. Despite the record, junior guard Connor Cashaw said he was proud of how the Owls performed.
“Any team could’ve separated, packed it in, went their separate ways, gave up,” Cashaw said. “This is adversity, obviously. Our response was fighting every single game, fighting for each other, coming closer.”
The Owls entered the weekend with an outside shot of qualifying for the conference tournament. They needed to beat the University of Texas, El Paso and the University of Texas, San Antonio and for UTEP to lose to the University of North Texas on Saturday. Although Rice was able to defeat UTEP 76-70 on Thursday, the Miners’ win over North Texas eliminated the Owls just moments before Rice tipped off Saturday night against UTSA. Rice went on to fall to the Roadrunners 79-60. According to Pera, the news of UTEP’s win was difficult for the Owls to handle.
“Finding out before tip what happened with UTEP was challenging, to say the least, on the staff and the team,” Pera said. “I guess I could’ve done a better job of trying to get us more prepared. I couldn’t.”
A year after losing six of its top players and its head coach, Rice fell from No. 5 in C-USA to No. 13. The Owls finished the season winning two of their final four games largely thanks to the performances of freshmen Najja Hunter and Malik Osborne, who averaged 16.8 points per game and 11.8 points per game, respectively, over that stretch. Osborne added 7.5 rebounds per game in that stretch. Hunter, who won last week’s C-USA Freshman of the Week Award, said he felt like he settled into his role as the season progressed.
“I’ve always been that type of player,” Hunter said. “Basically, for me, it’s [getting a feel for] the confidence and the speed of college basketball. People say you gotta run your own race, and my time is now. [Osborne] started really early, getting his flow, and I’m getting my flow now.”
The loss to UTSA concluded the first year of Pera’s tenure. It was his first season as a college head coach, though he had 12 years of prior experience as a high school head coach. According to Pera, he has a lot he can take away from his initial season.
“I learned every day from the kids how to coach them, how to love them, how to be there for them and hopefully how to push them,” Pera said. “Obviously, this is a very important time for this program because I believe we are heading up. I’m very excited about everything that is going on.”
Rice graduates just two seniors, forward Bishop Mency and guard J.T. Trauber. Additionally, two graduate transfers, forward Dylan Jones and guard A.J. Lapray, have exhausted their eligibility. This leaves Rice with 10 returning players including sophomore guard Josh Parrish, who sat out this year after transferring from Texas Christian University. The Owls will also add four freshmen, two of whom are rated as three-star recruits by 247Sports. Pera said he is optimistic about the team heading into next season.
“This program is on very solid ground,” Pera said. “Culture starts with great kids, because great kids care about the program … and that’s what I have. I have a group of those guys. We gotta add more depth, we gotta add some more talent, and both of those things are on the way.”
For Trauber and Mency, Saturday’s loss to UTSA was their final game in a Rice uniform. Trauber made the first start of his career, playing a season-high three minutes. Trauber said he is honored to have had the opportunity to play for Rice.
“It was a night filled with a lot of emotion,” Trauber said. “I wish we could’ve gotten a different result, for sure, but it was a night and it’s a game that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. As some of the guys were telling me after the game, this is not the end, it’s the beginning. I’ve made a lot of lifelong friends here.”
Mency said he will cherish the chance he had to work with his coaches and teammates.
“It was a special night for the both of us,” Mency said. “I’m just proud to be a part of something, proud to be a Rice Owl … Winning and losing, yeah, everybody wants to win, but just being a part of some of the camaraderie, that’s more [important] than anything else. I’ll consider myself a winner for the rest of my life knowing that I’ve got these guys as my friends and brothers.”