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Checking in: Men’s basketball 13th in AAC at midseason

Senior forward Max Fiedler drives against a University of Incarnate Word defender. At time of publication, the Owls are currently 6-10 on the season. Courtesy Rice Athletics

By Landry Wood     1/16/24 10:07pm

Halfway through the season, Rice men’s basketball has not won a game against an American Athletic Conference opponent. Following Jan. 12’s loss to the University of South Florida, the Owls are 6-10 on the season, 0-3 in conference play and stuck in a four-game skid, at time of publication.

“It’s a challenging league,” head coach Scott Pera said. “We got off to a slow start. I think we should’ve won two of the first three [in conference]. We have to find ways to close out games.”

According to Pera, the team’s struggles partly result from a newfound difficulty in making three-point shots. In the 2022-23 season, Rice was fifth in Conference USA in three-point percentage and second in total three-point field goals made. The Owls sat at the bottom of the AAC table in three-point percentage going into last week’s South Florida game, but thanks to sophomore guard Mekhi Mason and senior guard Alem Huseinovic each going four for five from the perimeter against the Bulls, Rice has risen to tenth, out of 14, in the AAC in that column. 

“We haven’t shot the ball particularly well, which has been a surprise to us,” Pera said. “We thought we had a pretty good shooting team. But we have a lot of games left. We shot it well [against South Florida], so hopefully that will continue … We need to continue to get better at taking the right shots, not forcing it, sharing the ball and staying calm.”

The players responsible for 67.7% of Rice’s scoring in 2022-23 have returned for this season. Missing is then-senior guard Quincy Olivari, who led the Owls in points per game and scored 24.3% percent of the team’s points before transferring to Xavier University in March. According to Pera, Rice’s shooting has also been hurt by the absence of junior Cameron Sheffield, who has been sidelined with a foot injury since November.

Two key returning Rice seniors have started every game this season: guard Travis Evee and forward Max Fiedler. Fiedler leads the Owls in field-goal percentage and averages nearly twice as many rebounds and assists per game as the next guy, while Evee is first in points and steals per game. According to Pera, the quality of Rice’s play relies heavily on the duo’s ability to show up and lead. 

“Travis and Max are a big part of everything we do,” Pera said. “We count on them to be productive every night and to be consistent contributors. We also need them to improve defensively, and be great, vocal leaders of the team.”

Improvement on the defensive end would help the Owls, who currently have the worst scoring margin in the conference and sit at fourth most points allowed per game. The perimeter is a particular weakness for Rice on defense as on offense, with opponents making a higher percentage of threes against the Owls than against any other AAC team besides the University of Texas at San Antonio. Additionally, Rice is last in steals per game, next to last in turnover margin and below average in blocked shots. However, Pera sees progress in the Owls’s ability to slow down opponents. 

“I think we’ve improved defensively,” Pera said. “We still have a long way to go, but we’re making strides.”

The Owls have 15 conference contests left before their first AAC tournament. Rice went 6-9 in the final 15 games of their last two regular seasons in C-USA. 6-9 also happens to be the lowest rate at which the Owls can win in the second half of 2023-24 to enter the conference tournament with a better winning percentage than they have right now. To do that and improve on how they performed down the stretch in previous years, Rice needs to win at least 40% of their games in a league in which they are already in the bottom half of many statistical rankings, and have the worst total record, despite having the third-easiest strength of schedule in the conference at 0.55.

Pera and his players continue to have high expectations for themselves. According to Fiedler, the team shows flashes of skill and success of which they just need to lay hold.

“We have some stretches where we play really high-level basketball,” Fiedler said. “We have to extend that over 40 minutes and continue to improve, and then the results will be in our favor.”

“Our expectations are to compete and to try and win every game we play,” Pera said. “That’s our goal.”

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