New team, same dream: Men’s Basketball aims to impress
The start of November means that basketball season is officially here. After a long off-season, men’s basketball head coach Scott Pera is ready to start his seventh season at the helm of the Owls.
“What a fun time of the year,” Pera said. “[I’m] excited about our group. We’re all very excited to get started. We had a really good preseason and now they’re ready to play against somebody else.”
The Owls are coming off one of their best seasons in recent years, ending with an overall 19-16 record, the most wins under Pera’s six-year tenure as head coach. The Owls are returning four of their five starters from their 2022-23 season, led by guard Travis Evee and forward Max Fiedler, who are both fifth-year seniors. Evee, who was second on the team in points per game with 15.6 and three pointers made with 79, is looking to continue building off of the team’s success from last season.
“Last year I think was probably one of the best ones that we’ve had, but we’re expecting this year to be even better,” Evee said. “But at the end of the day, the goal stays the same: [to] win every game that we play, to play to the best of our ability and to come out victorious at the end of the day.”
Fiedler was the third highest scorer, averaging 11.1 points per game, and was the team leader with 7.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game last season. Fiedler received multiple pre-season awards this off-season including Second Team Preseason All-American Athletic Conference and First Team Preseason All-AAC by the Almanac.
“It’s been a long, long offseason,” Fiedler said. “We’re excited to beat up on somebody else a little bit rather than ourselves for the last few months. [The move to the AAC] brings new teams, new cities, new players and a lot of talented teams. [It’s] definitely a step up in the competition so we [have to] be ready night in and night out to bring our best.”
A big setback for the Owls is the departure of Quincy Olivari, who will be using his final year of eligibility playing at Xavier University. Olivari was the team’s leading scorer last year and ended his Rice career 13 points shy of the 1,500 career points mark.
Pera and the Owls’ coaching and recruitment staff spent the offseason attempting to fill that gap. Their biggest splash was the addition of Keanu Dawes, a four-star recruit and the 25th-best power forward in the country. As one of the highest Rice recruits in program history, Dawes signed with the Owls over multiple Power-5 schools including the University of Texas.
The Owls also added three transfers to their roster: sophomore forward Noah Shelby from Vanderbilt University, junior forward Sam Alajiki from the University of California Berkeley and graduate guard Anthony Selden from Gardner-Webb University.
“Anytime you lose a really good player, you will affect the program in some way,” Pera said. “The bad news is we lost Quincy [Olivari] but the good news is we kept Travis [Evee] and Max [Fiedler] and are returning four starters. I’m expecting Mekhi [Mason] to step up. He’s a talented player who we’re counting on to make big plays for us on the offensive end and defensive end and as for Keanu [Dawes], I want him to just be himself.”
This season marks the first year in the American Athletic Conference for the Owls, representing a step up in competition. Not only is the AAC home to heralded programs like the University of Memphis and Wichita State University, but adds strong programs from the C-USA like UNT and No. 10 Florida Atlantic University, which is fresh off a Cinderella run to the NCAA Final Four in last year’s March Madness tournament. Despite these challenges, Pera is excited about the switch to the new conference.
“[The AAC] is really good and I know our guys are excited about that,” Pera said.” I think the league is going to be really strong, from top to bottom, but the nightly challenges are similar. So at the end of the day, we need to play our best on a nightly basis, try and find a consistent level of performance. And if we do that, I think we’ll win our share.”
Going forward, the Owls' eyes are set on March. After falling one game short of a 20-win season last season, the team wants to not only make it to 20 but surpass it. However, the odds are stacked against them. The Owls, who were ranked 11th in the pre-season AAC coaches poll, have a tough non-conference schedule with multiple Power 5 conference opponents including No. 18 Texas and No. 7 University of Houston. Despite the challenge, Pera won’t let the pre-season rankings bother him.
“This is my seventh year and I don't think we've ever finished where they predicted,” Pera said. “We've always finished higher or better. Maybe we’ll use it for motivation, somewhere down the line but for now,here's no use getting too worked up about it.”
With the sun dawning on a new season, Fiedler says the Owls are looking to get out to a hot start.
“It's important just to get off to a good start, especially the non-conference [play] so we have a lot of momentum going into league play,” Fiedler said. “If each and every night we come out competing hard and playing our brand new basketball, the results will show.”
The Owls take the court for the first time this season at home on Tuesday, against the University of St. Thomas at 7 p.m. Later this week, the Owls return to Tudor Fieldhouse on Friday for a highly anticipated matchup against Harvard University at 7 p.m. Both games will be streamed on ESPN+.
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