Men's Basketball 2011
For those searching for a single image to sum up the prospective men's basketball season, the scene in the Trauber Suite at Tudor Fieldhouse on Wednesday, Oct. 26 was an appropriate one. As the players sat at individual tables waiting for one-on-one interviews with the media, five freshmen brought the energy and liveliness to the room. The close-knit group of rookies sat front and center, exchanging laughs and cracking jokes as media members continued to enter the suite. Unlike in years past, it was not the talented group of underclassmen that garnered all of the attention when the cameras and audio recorders were turned on. In the back of the room sat Head Coach Ben Braun's veteran core of juniors and seniors, a group ready to assume expanded leadership roles for a team with postseason aspirations.
"We're excited because we are bringing our top four scorers [from the 2010-2011 season] back," Braun said at the men's basketball media day a few weeks ago.
The combination of returning talent and a deep recruiting class has made Rice a popular pick for Conference USA's breakout team in the upcoming season. The expectations are as high as they have been in Braun's four-year tenure with the Owls, as Rice looks to reach postseason play for the first time since 2005. Considering the experienced core that will take the floor tomorrow night when the season tips off at Tudor Fieldhouse against the University of New Orleans, it is easy to justify the optimism that is surrounding the 2011-12 men's basketball team.
Any preview of the upcoming Rice basketball season has to begin with Coach Braun's tandem of team co-MVPs from 2010-11: junior forward Arsalan Kazemi and junior guard Tamir Jackson.
"Arsalan and Tamir have been phenomenal. It's hard to imagine where the Rice basketball program would be without [Kazemi and Jackson]," Braun said of his junior leaders, the top scorers for Rice a season ago.
Kazemi will look to build off of his breakout sophomore season, in which he led the Owls in scoring and rebounding and was the only player in the conference to average a double-double. A selection by the coaches on the preseason all-conference first team, Kazemi has garnered national hype as one of the country's best players in a non-Bowl Championship Series conference.
"What you accomplish individually is for after the season," Kazemi said of the preseason accolades that he has amassed so far. "First I just want to win some games and finish with a winning record to get our team to the postseason."
To reach his goal, Kazemi will need help from Jackson, the junior guard who has started all 63 games in his Rice career. One of the most accomplished guards in all of C-USA, Jackson brings stability to the backcourt with his superb court vision and on-the-ball defensive play. After having led the team in scoring during conference play in each of his first two years at Rice, Jackson appears focused to lead his team beyond his prior frustrations.
"We were so close to making the postseason last year. It just makes you more motivated. It is going to make us hungry," Jackson said of the team's postseason aspirations. "It's just exciting to be here, to be a part of something big."
One last hardwood hurrah
Not to be overlooked in terms of importance to the team's success is Braun's class of four seniors, including two starters from a year ago. Braun spoke highly of his seniors at media day, stressing the importance of their leadership to the success of the team this season. "The seniors have been through a lot of tough battles. I feel that they're up to the challenge of taking this team to another level," said Braun of his veteran group. Leading this group is shooting guard Connor Frizzelle, a prolific scorer who needs just 88 points to become just the 29th player in Rice men's basketball history to join the 1,000-point club. Frizzelle was one of three Owls to average double figures in scoring last season and presents a threat to opposing defenses both behind the arc and off the dribble. Joining Frizzelle as one of the team's best shooters is Lucas Kuipers, a small forward who started all but one game for Braun in 2010-11. At 6 feet 8 inches, Kuipers forces defenses to stretch the floor with his ability to get hot from beyond the arc, creating mismatch problems that give other teammates opportunities on the offensive end of the floor. Senior guard Nate Schwarze is one of the team's most experienced backcourt players, and will be a vital contributor to Braun's rotation of guards. Forward Emerson Herndon missed most of last season with a knee injury, but will add size and athleticism on the front line for the upcoming season.
The fab freshmen
As a recruiter, Braun has made a reputation of tallying the frequent flyer miles to bring basketball talent to Houston. This year's freshman class is no exception, as Braun brings in a charismatic group that will look to contribute an immediate impact to the program.
"The young guys are giving us great effort, great enthusiasm so far," Braun said on his early impressions of his freshman class. "It is great to have a young group of players giving you energy and enthusiasm on a consistent basis." The leader of this group figures to be point guard Dylan Ennis, a Canada native who played his high school ball in Illinois. Ennis was ranked one of the top-30 high school point guards in the country by ESPN last season, and has a chance to start for Braun from day one. Ennis is joined in the backcourt by Julian DeBose, a Washington D.C. native with excellent size and length for his position. Ahmad Ibrahim (Lebanon) and Jarelle Reischel (Germany) are the latest in the line of Braun's prized international recruits, and should contribute early on. Class 5A Oregon All-State First-Team member Seth Gearhart will bring size and rebounding to the frontcourt, while guard and California native Dan Peera will look to earn playing time at the guard position.
Ready for round two
After finishing off the 2010-2011 season strong, the sophomore class will look to take on expanded roles in the upcoming campaign. Forward David Chadwick played in 22 games last season, and saw an increase in minutes with the arrival of conference play. Chadwick showed an ability to provide energy off the bench, and will continue to bring rebounding and size to the rotation. J.R Reynolds made his impact as a defensive stopper off the bench a year ago, and had his best game in Rice's 15-point upset of the University of Memphis. Reynolds played in 10 of Rice's last 11 games last season and will look to expand his role in the coming season. The hardest player to miss walking around on campus is Omar Oraby, whose defensive impact is tough to ignore at 7 foot 2 inches. Oraby was one of the team's most improved players over the course of the 2010-11 season, and figures to see more playing time at the center position for Coach Braun.
United Nations of netters
There may not be a men's basketball roster in the country that reflects its school's student body as accurately as the Rice's does. The roster of 15 features players from four different continents, including five players from outside the United States. Ennis (Ontario, Canada), Ibrahim (Beirut, Lebanon), Kazemi (Esfahan, Iran), Oraby (Cairo, Egypt) and Reischel (Frankfurt, Germany) give the basketball team an international flavor that matches the diverse personality of the student body at Rice.
For a team looking to make an appearance in the postseason for the first time in six years, the schedule will provide the opportunity to compile resume-enhancing wins that pay dividends to selection committees come March. The first non-conference test will come at the South Padre Island Invitational, when the Owls will play two NCAA tournament hopefuls in Northern Iowa University and Iowa State University. The premier home game of the season will take place on Dec. 19 when Rice hosts Temple University, a consensus top-30 team in the preseason polls. The team will also travel in state to play the University of Texas and No. 19 Texas A&M University. The final game of the non-conference schedule will be against Texas Christian University before Rice begins its conference slate on Jan.7 against Marshall University. Most pundits have the Owls finishing in the middle of the conference standings, with No. 11 University of Memphis taking the crown as overwhelming preseason favorite. Marshall University, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, the University of Central Florida and the University of Tulsa occupy the remaining top five spots, but optimism abounds on South Main for the Owls' ability to leap into the upper echelon of teams in C-USA.
With Braun's core talent now entering its third year at Rice, there is reason to believe that the Owls have a good shot at playing postseason basketball this year. Jackson and Kazemi lead a team that returns four starters and is bringing in its deepest freshman class in recent memory. This alone should be enough for Rice to improve on its 14-win season last year. The key for the Owls is going to be their performance in close games. The team went just 2-7 last year in games decided by less than five points, the mark of an inexperienced squad that struggled to finish games. Contributions from more veteran players should help Rice with this consistency problem and will be the barometer of how far the team goes this season. The non-conference schedule will challenge the Owls, but sets the team up nicely to enter conference play with a strong record. This season will be a test of how far the program has come under the supervision of Braun. The talent and experience are in place for Rice to take the next step forward, as are the expectations.
"The only expectations that [the team] has are our own expectations," Braun said of his team's goals. "When our players are tougher on themselves than anyone else is on them, we're going to be successful."
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