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Men's basketball starts C-USA schedule 0-2

By Dan Elledge     1/13/14 6:00pm

Rice men's basketball has not had a successful 2014 up to this point, dropping its first two conference contests. The Owls lost to Florida International University 71-60 on Wednesday, Jan. 8 and Florida Atlantic University 73-68 on Saturday, Jan. 11. With the losses, the Owls are now 5-10 overall and 0-2 in Conference USA play.

Head Coach Ben Braun said the team played well in stretches, but let up mostly on the defensive end in critical situations. Braun said he was critical of the team after the loss to FAU because the team lost the defensive edge it had in the first half. He said the Owls let FAU back into the game when it should have been a comfortable win.

"We did not maintain our aggressiveness defensively," Braun said. "[FIU] knocked down some shots, and we needed to get out there and force their shooters to drive. That hurt us, and we went through a drought ourselves [during that period]."

Even though the losses were a disappointing start to conference play, freshman forward Sean Obi said there were positives that could be taken from each game. Obi said the team has room for improvement and growth and that with each practice, the Owls are learning to play with one another.

 "The main thing I am going to take away from those games is that we are going to get better," Obi said. "It's going to take us a little bit of time ..., but we are going to play better and win. We don't want to be at the bottom of our conference [to start the season]."

Braun said defense will be the main focus during practice this week. He said the offense was flowing nicely, but it was difficult for the team to get the necessary defensive stops to keep the Owls in the game, and this had to be changed.

"Over a two-hour practice Monday, we spent an hour and 40 minutes on defense," Braun said. "We had to stay on the floor until we got stops. Some of our drills went pretty long, but we had to get consecutive stops. It was a lesson for our guys that we have to continue playing even when our shots are not falling."

Obi said he agreed with Braun. He said the team cannot win games until its defensive lapses are fixed.

"Our offense is not bad," Obi said. "On defense, we need to get stops. There's no way we are going to win if we do not play better defense. We need to help each other out."

The Owls hit the road for the first time this conference season to play the University of Southern Mississippi (14-3 overall, 1-1 C-USA) on Thursday, Jan. 16 and Tulane University (9-8 overall, 1-1 C-USA) on Saturday, Jan. 18. Last season, the Owls lost 75-52 to Southern Miss and lost 89-64 to Tulane.

Braun said Southern Miss is one of the best teams in the league and that it will be extremely difficult to beat the Golden Eagles on their home court.

"Southern Miss is just as good as anybody in our league, and they are certainly going to be good at home," Braun said. "They play a really tenacious zone, and they press."

Tulane is one of Rice's major rivals in C-USA, especially after the University of Houston moved to the American Athletic Conference in 2013, Braun said.

"Tulane has always been a big rival for us on the road, and they have a bunch of good offensive players," Braun said. "They have been strong at the guard play this year, so we have to go out and stop their shooters."

Braun said winning on the road is one of the most difficult things to do in college sports, let alone college basketball, but the Owls have been successful this year with wins at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi (63-61) and Santa Clara University (67-66). Braun said teams grow on the road and he expects it to be no different for this group of players. 

"It does not get easier, but the road defines you," Braun said. "We have done it, and we can do it again."

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