By Evan Neustater
Following the 2013-14 season that saw the Rice University men’s basketball team finish with a 7-23 overall record and a 2-14 record in Conference USA, Rice hired new Head Coach Mike Rhoades to help turn the team into a conference contender.Rhoades, one of the leading assistant coaches that guided Virginia Commonwealth University to its run of NCAA Tournament appearances, including its Final Four appearance in 2011, comes to Rice after recording a 137-46 record at VCU. Prior to VCU, Rhoades gained head coaching experience at Randolph-Macon College, where he finished with an overall record of 197-76 as a head coach in ten years, leading his team to four NCAA Tournament appearances, including trips to the Sweet 16 in 2002 and 2003. While coaching at VCU, the Rams utilized an offense dubbed the ‘HAVOC’ system, characterized by fast-paced play and full-court press on defense. This season, Rhoades plans to use the system to help Rice compete against bigger, faster teams. According to Rhoades, however, the system will take time to implement.“I’m realistic, we can’t play that way right now with the personnel we have,” Rhoades said. “We are going to play fast, and we’re going to try to play very aggressive. But I’m also realistic this year, there are certain things our team can do and certain things they can’t do; I’m not sure we can run up and down every single possession and throw it up there and go get it, so we have to have a level of team play and execution.”As the off-season winds down and the regular season begins, Rhoades’ notorious off-season workouts and practices come to a close. Practices feature grueling workouts that, according to Rhoades, will help the team react to any situation that may be presented this season.“We want to get to a point where we make our guys very quickly uncomfortable so they understand that that’s where they’re going to be a lot,” Rhoades said. “They might as well be comfortable being uncomfortable. Let’s make practices and workouts so hard that you’re so excited to play a game because they’re so much easier.”This season, Rice returns three out of last year’s five starters, including senior forward Seth Gearhart, senior guard Dan Peera and junior guard Max Guercy, who is the leading returning scorer on the team with 9.3 points per game last season. Although Rice lost its top two scorers from last season in Sean Obi and Austin Ramljak, Guercy, Peera and Gearhart bring a combined 199 games of playing experience to the table. Additionally, sophomore guard Marcus Jackson returns to the team after leading all freshmen in C-USA in steals last season and leading the Owls in assists in 11 games. Rhoades said the leadership of the older, more experienced players will pay dividends this season, especially under a new coach and system.“Our program is going to be led by Max [Guercy], Marcus [Jackson] and Seth [Gearhart], those three guys for sure,” Rhoades said. “I’m very happy with their attitudes and their approach. They’ve been really good with the young guys.”Guercy said despite having to transition to a new coaching staff and system, the players have bought into the work ethic the coaches have been preaching.“First day [Rhoades] got here, he wanted to instill in us that we were going to be one of the hardest working teams in the country,” Guercy said. “I think he’s been doing a great job of that ever since he got here.”Guercy also said the ‘HAVOC’ style of offense is both entertaining and will work in Rice’s favor due to the team’s lack of height and physical size.“We’re not a big team, so [the fast-paced offense] will work to our advantage,” Guercy said. “This style of play is fun and exciting, and I love it. It’s hard; it’s definitely hard to play. You’re going to have a lot of responsibilities, but you’re also going to have a lot of freedom.”According to sophomore center Andrew Drone, who had a 53.5 percent field goal percentage in 30 games off the bench last season, adjusting to the new system and coaching staff required starting right from the beginning again.“I had to take the mindset of almost being a freshman again,” Drone said. “While I came in and did a lot of work last year, I just had to completely start over the whole process; it was a new system, [and] there were new coaches I had to learn from.”Gearhart said he knows the new offense will be challenging to run, and the team needs to continue to train and practice in order to execute it effectively.“Really I just have to just buy into the system, because it’s nothing like we’ve done the past few years here at all,” Gearhart said. “One thing is we all need to get into better shape. No one was in the right shape for this offense coming in, so we just need to buy in to what [Rhoades] wants to do and how he wants to do it.”With only seven lettermen returning and eight newcomers arriving into the program, the Owls will have to turn to young talent to play early and often in the season. According to Rhoades, some freshmen will receive substantial playing time and will be expected to play at a high level despite their inexperience.“Bishop Mency, Maurice Rivers, Jordan Reed; those three guys are three other freshmen who are going to play a lot of minutes,” Rhoades said. “They have to step up. I think [Mency] and [Rivers] have done a great job. They’re athletic enough to hold their own at this level as freshmen. Our freshmen [have] been very coachable … these young guys have really stepped up.”With the season about to begin, all players and coaches have agreed that Rice has worked hard this offseason to improve on their seven-win campaign from last season and climb the ranks in the C-USA. Rhoades said while the team is coming off a relatively poor season, the team has bought into the program and is ready to take the next step.“Sometimes, when you’re a new coach in a new program, there are older guys and some younger guys that will fight you a little bit, but these guys have jumped in since day one and I’m very proud of them for that,” Rhoades said. “We’ve really improved; we still have a long way to go to where we want to get to, but I’ve been really excited about their approach, how much focus they’ve put into their game, how much time they’ve put into the weight room and their bodies and doing things on and off the court the way I expect them to.”The Owls open the regular season on Friday, Nov. 14, at Oregon State University. Rice will then have its first home game against Prairie View A&M University on Wednesday, Nov. 19, in Tudor Fieldhouse.