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MBB needs to fix defense in time for tournament


By Pavithr Goli     2/28/23 10:52pm

The Rice men’s basketball team started the season firing on all cylinders, winning 11 of their first 14 games and finishing the month of January with a 15-6 record. However, the team struggled in February, losing six of the eight games they played during the month. Sitting sixth in Conference USA, with just two games left in the regular season, the Owls must figure out how to fix their flaws if they hope to make waves at the conference tournament next week. 

Their problem is not scoring, as they have the third-best scoring offense in the conference and the No. 51 offense in the entire nation. The reason the Owls’ record does not reflect their offensive performance is the key to any championship team: a good defense. The Owls’ defensive unit is among the worst in the nation. Their 74.8 points allowed per game ranks No. 302 out of 352 teams in Division I basketball. Further, the team is allowing the highest field-goal percentage and second most points in the entire conference. 

Earlier this season, it seemed the Owls had finally solved the defensive problem they’ve long struggled with. In two consecutive games in late January, Rice held its opponents under 65 points – the only two times they’ve done so this conference season. After that stretch, sophomore guard/forward Cameron Sheffield said that their defense was finally turning into a strength.

“I feel like one of our improved strengths is defense,” Sheffield said. “That’s been at the forefront of our minds this year. We’ve been working on that since June in the summer. So I feel like that’s become one of our strengths recently.”

Around the same time, head coach Scott Pera pointed out that his team’s defense was still trying to improve as they entered a more critical stage of their season.  

“I think, you know, defensively, we’re still a work in progress,” Pera said. “We’ve had some games that we’ve played really well defensively and there are some games where we’ve lost because we just haven’t been good enough defensively. It’s something we’re getting better at and will be really important down the stretch.”

Despite Pera’s remarks, the team has not only failed to show any signs of improvement on the defensive side, but they’ve regressed significantly. Since that two-game stretch, the Owls have allowed 70-plus points to every team they’ve played. In the first month of conference play, the Owls allowed an average of 73.33 points per game, but in February, this figure increased to 79.75. Their inability to prevent teams from scoring has been the cause of their recent stretch of conference losses, and the team must make some adjustments in order to prevent this from inhibiting them from reaching their goals in March. 

Despite their recent defensive woes, the team still has room for optimism. If Pera is able to better use the height that the Owls have at the forward position, with 6’11” junior Max Fiedler and 6’11” freshman Ifeanyi Ufochukwu, the Owls can help thwart offenses come conference tournament time. With an already overpowering offense, the Owls need some slight improvement on the defensive side to achieve their lofty goals during the postseason. 

The Owls will close the season at home against Florida Atlantic University on March 2, and Senior Day against Florida International University on March 4. With a 72% chance of finishing the regular season as the sixth seed in the C-USA, the Owls will need to find their defense if they hope to compete in the conference tournament next week.

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