Men's basketball young and hungry
When the Rice University men's basketball team's 2011-12 season came to an end last March with a loss to Oakland University in the quarterfinals of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, there was a sense of optimism surrounding the program and its core that combined veteran experience, youth and energy. But during the seven-month-long basketball offseason, disappointment grew when six players decided to leave the the program.
The Owls are set to start a new season tomorrow night when they host University of St. Thomas Houston at 7 p.m., and while the focus continues to lie on the departed players, those remaining have committed themselves to competing and improving as a team. However, whether this commitment can compensate for the team's loss of talent remains to be seen.
The most glaring weakness that the rash of transfers presents is in the post. Of the four returning players, only sophomore Seth Gearhart stands taller than 6 feet 4 inches. The team finished last in defensive rebounding last year, and controlling the glass will be even more crucial now.
"Everyone on the team has to focus a lot more on rebounding," Gearhart said.
After coming off the bench a season ago, Gearhart will anchor a front court that features freshman Ross Wilson, an athletic wing with the size and mobility to create mismatches.
But if the Owls are to exceed expectations this year, their primary offensive production will come from a group of versatile guards, led by senior Tamir Jackson. The lone upperclassman with Division I experience, Jackson enters the season already in the top 10 in program history in assists and steals. However, the role the New Jersey native plays for this team supersedes just statistics.
"With [Jackson], it's always been about the team," Head Coach Ben Braun said at the Conference USA media day last month. "He's been the consummate team leader."
Alongside Jackson will be sophomore guard Julian DeBose, the team's second-highest returning scorer from last year's squad. At 6 feet 4 inches, DeBose will move to the wing, looking to build off a freshman year in which he averaged seven points and two steals during the postseason.
"[DeBose's] improvement during the year was significant as anybody's on the team," Braun said. "He's got a tremendous work ethic. He's got a tremendous attitude."
The focus on Jackson and DeBose as the team's primary offensive options speaks toward a broader shift in philosophy that the head coach stressed at the team's media day.
"It's not going to be a traditional team," Braun said. "You'll see a lot of guys play
For the team to turn Braun's philosophy into practice, the latest class of recruits will need to contribute immediately. Freshman Keith Washington, a standout prep guard from Philadelphia, has a good chance to start at point guard to open the year. With good size, quickness and the ability to drive to either side, Washington's flexibility makes him a strong fit for Braun's system.
The final starting spot will likely fall to either Nizar Kapic or Wilson, both of whom are international freshmen.
If transfer Austin Ramljak shoots from deep as well as he did at the junior college level, he can contribute off the bench for a team that will need to get innovative on the offensive end.
Competing with Ramljak will be freshman Max Guercy and sophomore Dan Peera, a pair of California natives who will look to crack the backcourt rotation early on. The team also recently added Bahrom Firozgary, a walk-on junior with size and athleticism to add frontcourt depth.
However, the fact remains that with less than a quarter of the team's minutes and points from last year returning, the team is going to experience growing pains. From a talent standpoint, it could be outmatched on the court as the year progresses. Still, the Owls are looking to the future, and may be able to surprise people this year.
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