The Fifth Lap
For Rice Men's Basketball, it feels like the dream has been put on hold.
I won't say it's over. The program has made too many strides in the five years since their 3 win season in 2007-2008 to just give up on it. But with the recent departures of Arsalan Kazemi and Omar Oraby, the fifth and sixth players to have left the team before the end of their eligibility since last season, the dream feels at least postponed.
The dream, for me as a fan, had two basic pieces. Piece one was watching Rice become a specific type of team. Piece two was seeing that team achieve great results.
When I say type of team, it's the oldschool, romanticized, story-worthy type of team. It's a team mixing hungry, timetested veterans with fun loving, dynamic young players. It's a team that's cohesive and passionate and plays hard from start to finish. It's a team that can overcome adversity, and that has players who know when to take a game over and when to help a teammate star. It's a team that combines all these things, and goes out to beat teams far more talented on paper.
The second piece of that dream is the result. For Rice, that result could be an NCAA or NIT berth, depending on how ambitious you're feeling, but either one would be an exciting step forward.
And what's tough to swallow is that at the end of last year, the dream seemed like it might finally be tangible for Rice's men's basketball team.
You had the veterans in Kazemi and guard Tamir Jackson. They had been through the growing pains of this program. They had taken the bruising losses, and celebrated in the hallmark victories. And on the court, they seemed to complement each other perfectly. Jackson was cool, collected, and always confident. Kazemi was exciting and contagiously passionate.
You had Oraby, the story of untapped talent being transformed. The 7-foot-2-inch Egyptian national came here as a very large man, and grew into an effective player.
And you had the young, impact players in Dylan Ennis (who made the C-USA Freshman team), Jarelle Reischel, and Julian DeBose.
Last year, they put together a winning record (including a win at Texas A&M), and claimed a post-season tournament berth. And as the season came to a close, you couldn't help but feel like maybe it was a stepping stone to even greater things.
Now, of those above, only Jackson and DeBose are left.
The reality is that this kind of turnover is more the rule than the exception in college basketball. According to Athletic Director Rick Greenspan, the NCAA saw over 450 basketball transfers in the past year. This is a world where talent isn't expected to stay put, where coaches recruit players with the expectation that they won't stay four years. This is the world where Kentucky wins the national championship with a group of teenage, future first-round picks whose plan was always to turn pro the next year.
But at Rice, as with so many other things, to be successful we have to be the exception. We have to recruit and develop players who want to contradict the prevailing trends, players who want to be Rice athletes and Rice students, with everything that comes along with that, for four years. We have to recruit and develop players who understand all the costs and rewards that come with Rice basketball, and are excited by them.
The 2012-2013 Rice Owls basketball team might still be exciting. On paper they look undersized and unproven. They are definitely young: the only upperclassman besides Jackson is junior college transfer Austin Ramljak.
But it's a team that should be playing with a chip on its shoulder, which should be relishing its opportunity to redefine Rice basketball. It's a group of guys who will be scrappy, creative, and will play hustle basketball. It's a unit with a confident, undisputed leader in Jackson, and with followers who don't know any better but to win basketball games.
If they put together a good run, this team could be one of the best sports stories of the spring, even of the year.
Until then, though, we're left waiting and wondering about the dream that could have been, the dream could now be coming to a premature end.