Rice needs to keep their players out of the transfer portal
On Saturday, the University of Texas, San Antonio gashed the Rice defense to the tune of 45 points in three quarters. While the defense had already allowed 58 points to the University of Texas, Austin, and 44 points to the University of Houston, there was something particularly disconcerting about giving up 45 points to a conference opponent, although the offense throwing two interceptions returned for touchdowns certainly didn’t help. The game marked the culmination of a fall from grace for a defense that ranked No. 12 in the country last year, allowing 18.8 points per game. So far this season, the Owl’s defense is giving up 39.67 points per game, good for No. 126 in the country out of 130 teams.
The most shocking part of this collapse, though, is that the team returned 10 of their 11 starters from last season, the lone exception being reigning two-time team MVP linebacker Blaze Alldredge, who transferred to the University of Missouri over the offseason.
It’s not realistic to pin their entire regression on Alldredge’s absence. There were obviously a number of other factors to consider, including injuries, a small sample size in last year’s COVID-19 shortened season and their difficult non-conference schedule this season. But you’re lying to yourself if you think that losing their best player doesn’t have a lot to do with it as well.
Losing Alldredge is part of a greater trend for Rice: They recruit and develop talented players, but consistently lose them to the transfer portal — along with their chances of winning games the next season. Trey Murphy III, the leading scorer on the men’s basketball team in 2019-20, transferred to the University of Virginia last year, on his way to becoming the 17th player taken in the most recent NBA draft. Murphy’s teammate Drew Peterson, who led the team in rebounds, steals and assists, bolted during that same offseason for the University of Southern California.
The women’s basketball team, meanwhile, lost three of their five starters from last season’s WNIT championship winning team to the portal of doom. Head coach Tina Langley accepted an offer at the University of Washington, and center Nancy Mulkey and forward Lauren Schwartz followed Langley to Seattle.
We’d love to blame Rice coaches for not being able to hold onto their own talent. But in reality, Murphy was never going to be a first round pick on a 0.500 men’s basketball team in Conference USA. Alldredge, who currently leads the Tigers in tackles and sacks, might have been drafted had he stayed an extra year with the Owls, but proving himself against Southeastern Conference competition will do wonders for his draft stock.
As for Mulkey and Schwartz, following the coach that recruited and molded you is a common trend among collegiate athletes, and they are clearly good enough to compete with some of the best women’s basketball teams in the country in the Pac-12. But they are yet another in a long line of Rice athletes choosing to take their talents elsewhere, and it doesn’t have to be that way.
From 2009 to 2015, years in which the Rice football team was by no means a powerhouse, they had at least one player drafted in each of those drafts except for 2010. This includes a second-round pick in 2013 and a third-round pick in 2014; if Alldredge thought he had a clear path to be drafted that high coming from Rice, it’s likely that he would have stayed. But football hasn’t had a player drafted since 2015, so Alldredge had no choice but to leave.
The baseball team, meanwhile, has produced 14 first-round picks in the MLB draft, tied for eighth most of any school. While this pipeline was established during their run of dominance under head coach Wayne Graham, a Rice player was drafted in the first five rounds of the MLB draft every year from 2009 until this past season, well after Graham’s prime. The point being that Rice has established consistent pipelines to professional leagues in the past, they’ve just fallen down on the job as of late and it’s costing them dearly.
Perhaps more concerning than anything spelled out above, is that with the NCAA’s new transfer rules allowing players to transfer and immediately play for their new school, this trend will likely get worse. Rice coaches and staff need to work to reestablish their pipelines to professional leagues. Obviously, the easiest way to do that is to win. But the 2008-2014 Rice football teams — that sent eight players to the NFL while going a combined 45-44 — prove that there are other ways to make your players visible. Continuing to allow players to walk out the door and into the national spotlight will make it harder for teams to win games, which in turn will make it harder for players to be recognized here and thus encourages more transfers. It’s a vicious cycle that must be broken, lest Rice athletics become a glorified farm system for power-five schools looking to poach talent.
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Most of the way through the 2019 season, I thought that Rice had some of the worst luck in all of college football. Through nine games, the Owls were winless, despite four one-score losses, including an eight-point loss to a Baylor University team that ended the season ranked in the top 15. All signs indicated that the Owls were much better than their 0-9 record and that their bad luck in close games was long overdue to flip. The Owls ended that season with a three-game winning streak, including two one-possession wins, appeared to confirm that theory.
On Saturday, Rice football came back from a ten point deficit in the fourth quarter to defeat Louisiana Tech University 35-31 on Senior Day. The come-from-behind win snapped a four-game losing streak and tallied the Owls fourth win of the season, moving their record to 4-8 and 3-5 in Conference-USA.
As many undergraduate students went home for Thanksgiving break, the Rice men’s basketball team spent their break participating in the Gulf Coast Showcase in Estero, FL where they won their first game but dropped the last two. In the first game last Monday, the Owls beat the University of Evansville 109-104 in three overtimes. However, following the win, the Owls did not have positive results for the remainder of the showcase as they lost to Oakland University 76-73 on Tuesday and were defeated by Fordham University 84-74 on Wednesday. After their Thanksgiving-week competition, the Owls are now 4-3 on the season.