Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:37AM

Rice Owls (3-8) at Texas Longhorns (7-5)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX
Tip: 1 P.M. | TV: Longhorn Network
LRT Consecutive Game #233

The Texas Longhorns wrap up 2012 with one last non-conference game, hosting in-state rival Rice this afternoon at the Erwin Center. While the Owls have been on an upward trajectory the last few seasons, this year’s squad is the definition of a rebuilding project, making this game more of a tune-up for the Longhorns. The timing is great, as Texas is coming off a pair of tough match-ups against North Carolina and Michigan State, with a road trip to Baylor looming next weekend.

By the numbers

No matter how you slice it, the numbers aren’t pretty for Coach Ben Braun and the Owls. Their adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency numbers rank in the bottom 100 nationally, with their offensive rebounding mark dead last out of 347 Division I teams. The Owls are still trying to put the pieces together after a tumultuous offseason, and it shows on the court.

As a result, Coach Braun has turned his team from one of last year’s quickest (68.6 possessions per game) to one of the slowest (64.3). They play patient basketball on the offensive end, spreading the court and waiting for the best possible shot. That patience does result in the one statistical bright spot for Rice, as their turnover rate of 17% is 22nd-best in the country. The Owls might not be able to score or rebound, but they certainly will not waste possessions with careless mistakes.

Meet the Owls

After the program’s most successful season in years, Coach Braun and the Rice faithful were ready for an experienced bunch to take the team to new heights this season. Instead, the decision not to renew the contract of assistant coach Marco Morcos unleashed a deluge of transfers and departures, gutting the once-promising roster.

Five Rice players transferred during the offseason, while a sixth returned home to Lebanon to play professionally. Of the six players, five were recruited by Morcos. Big man Arsalan Kazemi was a double-double machine at Rice and is now averaging 9.2 points and 10.4 boards for Oregon. Egyptian center Omar Oraby took his 7’4″ frame to USC, while German forward Jarelle Reischel went to Rhode Island. Point guard Dylan Ennis also transferred east, heading to Villanova, while forward Ahmad Ibrahim elected to go the professional route.

That leaves the Owls with three returning rotation guys, a host of newcomers, and a decided lack of size. The tallest players in the rotation are 6’7″ Seth Gearhart (No. 41) and British freshman Ross Wilson (No. 11). Gearhart is more of a stretch forward, however, while Wilson is struggling through the beginning of his first collegiate year. With no true big men, Rice often spreads all five players on the perimeter and constantly runs cuts through the lane, hoping for a quick-hitter that leads to a layup.

The star of the team is senior Tamir Jackson (No. 3), a 6’3″ guard who plays stifling perimeter defense and rebounds extremely well for a guy his size. On the offensive end, he’s the team’s best option to create a look, as he can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim when defenders play him a little too close. He’s also got the ability to hit a pull-up jumper at a moment’s notice, and is accurate enough from long range to be a consistent threat.

The other returning scorer is 6’4″ sophomore Julian DeBose (No. 15), who is also an excellent rebounder from the perimeter. He’s struggling with his midrange game this season, but has still managed to average 9.9 points per game by driving to the rack for layups and by converting his rare offensive boards into second-chance points.

With Ennis now on the Main Line, diminutive freshman Max Guercy (No. 1) is running the point. Listed at a generous 5’9″, Guercy is often able to get to the rim, but has had difficulties finishing in traffic. He’s good at using the hesitation dribble and varying his speeds to fool the defense, but Guercy’s inability to convert the easy looks is a huge blow for a team that is so inept on the offensive end.

Off the bench, junior forward Austin Ramljak (No. 42) has proven to be a big-time three-point threat. Although he’s been streaky from behind the arc, when the California juco product gets hot, he can light it up in a hurry. At the DirecTV Classic in Anaheim, Ramljak knocked down 9-of-18 from behind the arc in back-to-back games against Georgia Tech and Drake. On the season, he’s made a more reasonable 35% of his long-range looks, but Texas certainly can’t let him get comfortable this afternoon.

Freshman Keith Washington (No. 5) rounds out the core rotation, hailing from Philadelphia. He has an aggressive streak with good driving ability, and he has the strength to absorb contact and still get his shot up. Washington has shown some flashes this season that give fans hope that he can be a star, but for now he’s still a role player who is averaging 5.5 points in his 20 minutes per game.

Keys to the game

1) Take care of the ball – It looked like the Longhorns were heading the right direction in the turnover department, coughing it up on less than 17.5% of their possessions against UCLA, Texas State, and North Carolina. Saturday’s loss to a feisty Michigan State team exposed those weaknesses again, however, as the Longhorns ended more than 26% of their possessions with a turnover. While the Owls aren’t a team that forces many miscues, this is a major issue that the Longhorns need to get under control before tackling their Big 12 slate.

2) Deny Jackson’s driving lanesTamir Jackson is the only player on the Rice roster who can consistently create his own shot, and their offense can go cold for extended periods of time when he’s not scoring. If Julien Lewis and the Longhorns can turn away his drives and force him to beat them with long jump shots, Rice will have a hard time putting up enough points to hang with Texas.

3) Shadow Ramljak on the perimeterAustin Ramljak has proven he can put up a bunch of points from outside, and he doesn’t need a ton of space to get off his shot. The Texas defenders need to stay in his shirt when he’s floating around the arc, and they have to contest his long-range attempts. The three-pointer is the great equalizer for less talented teams, so if Texas can limit the damage from behind the arc, Rice will have little hope for an incredible upset.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:16AM

Texas Longhorns 73, Rice Owls 59

The Texas Longhorns wrapped up 2011 and their non-conference slate on a high note Saturday afternoon, outlasting a pesky Rice Owl team for a 14-point victory in front of the largest home crowd of the season. The win pushed Texas to a 10-3 mark as they head into Big 12 play, which begins with the Longhorns heading to Iowa State on Wednesday night.

Coach Rick Barnes employed a new lineup against Rice, the first time he had adjusted the starting five all season. Julien Lewis was inactive after slamming his hand in a car door on Thursday, while Jaylen Bond and Clint Chapman earned their first starts of the season thanks to quality play over the last few games. For Chapman, it was his first start since November of 2008.

Sheldon McClellan scored 19 in his first career start
(Photo credit: Michael Thomas/Associated Press)

What looked good

Sheldon McClellan took over Lewis’ slot in the starting lineup, and he responded with a 19-point performance, the fifth time in the last six games he’s cracked the double-digit barrier. Over that stretch, McClellan has averaged 14.8 points per game while shooting an impressive 53.6% from the field.

McClellan’s emergence as the team’s second scoring option is a much-needed development for Texas. The Longhorns will not find success this season if they can only rely on J’Covan Brown, a fact that was underscored by the team’s meltdown when he fouled out against N.C. State in New Jersey.

Sheldon has shown the ability to drain the quick catch-and-shoot coming out of the numerous baseline screens the team runs for him, but also can put the ball on the floor and create pull-up jumpers or easy layups for himself. Combine that with an incredible turnover rate of just 5.9%, and the Longhorns can now feel much more comfortable if Brown isn’t available in crunch time.

While McClellan was stepping up as a new starter, Jonathan Holmes was performing well in his new role of sixth man. The forward played 27 minutes off the bench, but still posted seven rebounds. The most impressive came off of a missed free throw by Bond, where Holmes literally wrestled the ball out of the hands of a Rice player and put in the follow while being fouled.

In addition to the boards he earned credit for, Holmes had quite a few hustle plays that don’t show up in the box score. His active hands on defense disrupted quite a few plays and deflected a few passes, and he kept rebounding opportunities alive by tipping out the loose balls that were just beyond his reach.

Sterling Gibbs also earned some praise for his continued success from long range. The tiny guard nailed all three of the three-pointers that he took, proving that he is going to be a valuable role player for the Horns in conference play. There’s a strong chance that his incredibly flat shot arc will result in some blocked shots when taller players close out on him, but Gibbs has a very quick release that helps to avoid that problem.

What needed work

While Gibbs did a great job shooting the trey, he and the rest of the Longhorns had major issues trying to penetrate the Rice zone. Gibbs picked up two charges in the first half when he attempted to create with the dribble, and he wisely elected to stick to the perimeter after that.

Myck Kabongo ran into a stout Rice defense
(Photo credit: Michael Thomas/Associated Press)

Myck Kabongo and Brown also had difficulties getting inside when Rice lined up in the 2-3. The pair of guards combined for 10 turnovers against the Owls, mostly as a result of forcing things that weren’t there. Brown repeatedly drove the ball into two or three defenders and got himself airborne before realizing there wasn’t a play available. Unfortunately, there weren’t passing outlets available either, and he threw the ball right to waiting Rice defenders.

The positive thing about these problems is that the Longhorns were at least attempting to penetrate the zone. Often, Texas teams faced with a zone defense do little more than pass the ball back and forth around the perimeter rather than take an active approach to breaking down the defense. Gibbs, Brown, and Kabongo had the right idea, but will have to be more aware of how the defense is reacting to avoid getting themselves into bad situations.

It should also be noted that for a few possessions in the second half, the Longhorns were able to do exactly that. Although the final 20 minutes lacked flow thanks to a deluge of whistles, Kabongo and Brown had a few nice plays where they attacked the paint off the bounce and made the right pass before the defense completely collapsed on them.

Up next: at Iowa State (10-3); Wednesday, 8 P.M.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:04AM

Rice Owls (9-4) at Texas Longhorns (9-3)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 1 P.M. CT | TV: Longhorn Network
LRT Consecutive Game #199

After a nine-day layoff, the Texas Longhorns return to action this afternoon, closing out 2011 against their old Southwest Conference rivals, the Rice Owls. In recent years, the Owls have not proven to be much of a challenge for the Longhorns, dropping all five games against Texas since Rick Barnes has arrived on the 40 Acres.

Ben Braun has turned things around at Rice
(Photo credit: James Nielsen/Houston Chronicle)

Ben Braun has the Owls headed in the right direction, though. Last season, the Longhorns won by just three points when they faced Rice at the Erwin Center, while last week the Owls snapped Texas A&M’s 67-game non-conference winning streak at Reed Arena. If the Longhorns were looking for an easy victory to wash the taste of the North Carolina debacle out of their mouths, this match-up certainly doesn’t fit that bill.

By the numbers

Rice is a big team by Conference USA standards, and as a result they make their living in the paint. Nearly 80% of their points come from the free throw line or inside the arc, while the team’s free-throw rate is 14th-highest in Division I. The Owls have an FTR of 48.3%, meaning that they average almost one free throw for every two field goal attempts.

On the other side of the ball, that formidable size equates to solid defense inside and some questionable numbers at the perimeter. The Owls are allowing D-I opponents to make more than 38% of their threes this year, a number that puts them in the bottom 50 nationally. Of course, it should be noted that those stats are skewed slightly by an insane 14-of-29 performance by Iowa State when the teams met in South Padre last month.

On the glass, the size of the Rice roster doesn’t add up to the numbers you might expect. Not surprisingly, their defensive rebounding percentage is 20th in the nation, as the Owls only allow opponents to reclaim 26.6% of their missed shots. On the offensive end, however, Rice is rather mediocre. Despite having Arsalan Kazemi, whose personal OR% of 15.3 is 37th in the country, the team is grabbing just 31.5% of their offensive board opportunities, slotting the Owls a disappointing 211th in the nation.

Meet the Owls

Everything begins and ends with Kazemi (No. 14) for Rice. The Iranian-born big man is averaging a double-double, logging 13.9 points and 12.5 rebounds per game. At 6’7″, he can play the post against most C-USA opponents, but is often undersized against major conference foes. Kazemi has a solid array of post moves, however, and is a highly skilled passer and serviceable ball handler.

Even with all those skills, Kazemi makes his hay at the free throw line. His free-throw rate is 13th-highest in D-I hoops this year, and he finished his sophomore campaign with the second-best mark in the nation. Fortunately, Kazemi is only making about 63% of his free throws this year, so the main concern for the Longhorns is foul trouble. With a thin frontcourt, Texas will have to make sure they can defend Rice’s big man without drawing too many whistles.

Junior guard Tamir Jackson keeps the offense humming
(Photo credit: James Nielsen/Houston Chronicle)

The other junior leader for Rice is Tamir Jackson (No. 3), a combo guard from New Jersey who has taken the role of point by default. Averaging 13.7 points and 3.6 assists per game, Jackson is a strong 6’3″ guard who can slash to the rim, draw fouls, and finish through the contact. Like Kazemi, Jackson also struggles at the line, where he has made just 63.5% of his attempts so far.

Joining Jackson in the backcourt is sharpshooter Connor Frizzelle (No. 4), a senior who has struggled in his three previous meetings with Texas. Despite averaging 27.3 minutes in those games, Frizzelle has made just 1-of-9 from behind the arc and averaged just 3.7 points.

This year, he’s third on the team with 8.8 points per game, and is the team’s most reliable shooter on the kickouts from Kazemi. Frizzelle also has a good pull-up jumper, and likes to use it after a strong head fake draws the close-out from opposing defenders.

The team’s other spot-up shooter on the perimeter is Lucas Kuipers (No. 20), also a senior. At 6’8″, the forward from Minnesota is a threat both inside and outside, and is one of the team’s better rebounders outside of Kazemi. On offense, he typically hangs out around the perimeter, spacing the floor for the big man inside. On defense, though, he’s a big part of Rice’s success at limiting opponents to one-shot possessions.

The fifth starting slot has been split between a pair of freshmen, Julian DeBose (No. 15) and Dylan Ennis (No. 31). DeBose is an athletic wingman out of Washington, D.C., but is working his way back from an ankle injury that kept him out of the A&M game. On Wednesday night, he played just seven minutes against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Ennis is a 6’2″ Canadian guard who finished his high school career at Lake Forest Academy in Chicago. He’s a natural leader who will likely take over full-time point guard duties in the future, but is still averaging more than 22 minutes as a freshman. He is really struggling from long range, where he’s made just 19% of his attempts this season, so the Longhorns can sag off to limit his ability to drive the lane.

Off the bench, freshman wing Ahmad Ibrahim (No. 0) has had an impressive start to his college career. Originally from Lebanon, Ibrahim has an ability to find the cracks in the defense for flashy drives to the hoop. He has solid handles and great body control, so even when his shot looks impossible to finish, he typically finds a way to sink it.

The international theme continues for the Owls when you look at frontcourt reserve Omar Oraby (No. 34), who hails from Cairo, Egypt. Although he’s playing just a little over seven minutes per game, he has made huge steps forward in his sophomore campaign. At 7’2″, Oraby is still a raw talent, but he has really soft hands to corral rebounds and moves well laterally to help out on defense. And of course, when a 7’2″ guy is standing tall on the block, it seriously limits the interior options for opponents.

In addition to a player from Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, and Canada, the Owls also have German product Jarelle Reischel (No. 12), a freshman wing who finished his high school career in New Jersey. Reischel is averaging less than 12 minutes per game this season, limited mostly by his struggles to hang on to the ball. His individual turnover rate of 34.7% is by far the worst on the team.

The only other player averaging more than 10 minutes per game is 6’7″ freshman Seth Gearhart (No. 41). The Oregon native still needs to add some muscle to be effective in college, but has already shown good ball handling skills and the ability to slash from the wings. He’s also keeping defenders honest with his three-point threat, as he’s knocked down 46% of his long-range looks in his limited minutes.

Keys to the game

1) Earn second-chance points — The Longhorns have become one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country over the last few weeks, but they will be facing a tough test against a Rice team that is one of the best on the defensive glass. The Owls limited A&M to less than 30% of their offensive board opportunities in their upset victory at Reed Arena last week, so the Longhorns will have to do a better job if they want to avoid the same fate as the Aggies.

2) Knock down perimeter looks — Rice will give up their fair share of easy looks from beyond the arc, so the Longhorns will have to take advantage of that opportunity. The Owls were repeatedly confounded by a simple dribble handoff when they lost to Iowa State in South Padre, so Texas should be able to get J’Covan Brown, Julien Lewis, Sterling Gibbs, and Sheldon McClellan some open looks from long range.

3) Take care of the basketball — The Owls don’t force a ton of turnovers, but the same could have been said about North Carolina prior to their thorough whipping of the Longhorns last Wednesday. Texas allowed 21 Tar Heel points off of their 13 turnovers, many of them coming as a result of forcing plays that weren’t there. The Longhorns — particularly Myck Kabongo — need to use a smarter, more patient approach against Rice this afternoon, or else they will be giving away free points to a Rice team that is great in transition.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 12:57PM

Rice Owls (3-2) at #21/20 Texas Longhorns (4-1)
Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 3 P.M. CT | TV: FSN (in TX); ESPN Full Court

Last season, the Rice Owls gave Texas all they could handle when the two teams met at Tudor Fieldhouse in Houston. The Owls were within seven points with 6:23 to go before the Longhorns pulled away on the strength of Dexter Pittman‘s inside play. Pittman is gone now, but the majority of that Rice team has returned. Four of last year’s starters will be on the court for the Owls this afternoon when the teams rekindle the old Southwest Conference rivalry.

Year Two of the Ben Braun era was one where the program simply treaded water. Although the Owls had won four early season games before their matchup with Texas, Rice won just four more games the rest of the year. This season, the Owls have padded their résumé with a pair of wins over NAIA schools and added a blowout victory against Grambling. The returning experience has clearly made a difference, though, as Rice hung close in tough road losses to Santa Clara and North Texas.

Tamir Jackson is a scoring machine
(Photo credit: Michael Paulsen / Houston Chronicle)

By the numbers

This afternoon will be a clash in styles, as the Owls come into this one averaging just 67.4 possessions per game. The Longhorns, meanwhile, are pushing the tempo to the tune of 71.3 possessions per contest. While a four-possession differential may not seem like much, in the world of tempo stats, it is a massive gap. The Owls will likely play a calm, deliberate style of half-court hoops, but look for the Horns to pressure the basketball and push the tempo on offense.

In their two NCAA contests, Rice’s free-throw rate is absolutely abysmal. A measure of how often a team gets to the line, the Owls’ FTR puts them 322nd out of 345 Division I teams. This means that Rice is settling for far too many jumpers, and isn’t attacking the paint.

On defense, Rice also has a terrible FTR. They are sending opponents to the line 57% of the time, which puts them 326th nationally. If Texas attacks inside, the Longhorns could attempt roughly 3,283 free throws in this game. You may want to add an extra 90 minutes to your DVR recording.

The other statistical concern for Rice is a very high turnover rate. More than once in every five trips down the court, the Owls are coughing up the basketball. Fortunately for Coach Braun, his team is hitting 42% of their shots, so when they actually hang on to the ball long enough to shoot it, the Owls are making it count.

Rice also seems to be a bit bi-polar behind the arc. In their three NCAA contests, the Owls are hitting 40% of their three-point attempts. But against the NAIA schools, Rice struggled mightily. The Owls fired up three-pointers indiscriminately in those two games, making just 6 of their 39 attempts. Although Rice was just 1-of-10 behind the arc against Texas last season, the Horns still need to keep an eye on the perimeter. Unless, of course, Texas changes its classification to NAIA sometime in the next two hours.

Arsalan Kazemi is Rice’s go-to guy
(Photo credit: Michael Paulsen / Houston Chronicle)

Meet the Owls

Last season, Arsalan Kazemi nearly had a double-double off the bench against Texas. He logged eight points and nine boards in only his sixth collegiate game. Now a sophomore, Kazemi has developed into the team leader. He’s tops on the team in both points and boards, logging 14.4 and 12 a game. He’s still a one-trick pony, as he does all his work inside. At 6’7″, that could lead to some frustrating nights for the Iranian-born Kazemi when the Owls square off against bigger frontcourts.

Another sophomore making an impact is guard Tamir Jackson. He’s hitting more than 36% of his three-point attempts, and is second on the team with 13.2 points a night. He’s also the most-used player, seeing more than 30 minutes a game. The main concern with the sophomore guard is ball control, as Jackson is averaging more turnovers than assists. Last year, he coughed it up four times against Texas.

Joining Jackson in the backcourt is junior Connor Frizelle. He had a standout freshman campaign in Conference USA, but struggled as a sophomore. Those struggles were never more apparent than in last year’s game with Texas, where Frizelle missed all ten of his shots. He’ll certainly score points this afternoon, so the Horns must work to limit this aggressive guard to jump shots.

Senior guard Cory Pflieger is in his sixth year of eligibility after missing all of last season due to an ankle injury. He’s playing about 23 minutes a game, and is a threat from long range. In 2008-09, his last full season, he made more than 36% of his long range attempts, but is off to a slower start this season with just 30% of his threes going down.

In the frontcourt, Lucas Kuipers is the only Owl besides Jackson who has started every game. At 6’8″, the junior is built more for the power forward role in the Rice offense, but generally plays more of a wing thanks to Kazemi’s preference to play down low. Despite starting every contest, Kuipers only plays about half of each game.

The real workhorse in the frontcourt is Trey Stanton. He’s the biggest guy on the Rice roster that gets any significant playing time, and he ate up a ton of minutes down low last season. This year, he’s the second-leading rebounder on the team with 6.4 boards a night and is averaging 7.2 points. He’s actually attempted two threes per game this season, but has only made 10% of them so far. He’s due to make quite a few, though, as the former Navy big man made 35% of his long-range attempts last season.

Off the bench, the Owls are getting a ton of production out of Nigerian-born senior forward Suleimon Braimoh. Although he’s playing just 15.8 minutes a night, he’s scoring a quick rate, chipping in 7.4 points in his limited action.

In addition to the three main guards in Ben Braun’s stable, the Owls also rely on minutes from freshman Trev Abraham and Nate Schwarze. Abraham has started two games, and Coach Braun expects big things from him in the near future. He’s a quick ballhandler and gets in your shirt on defense.

Schwarze, meanwhile, has seen his role increase dramatically. After playing less than seven minutes a night last season, he’s playing more than 15 a game this year. He’s currently leading the team with a 67% three-point percentage, but that number is skewed by the fact that he’s only taken three attempts all season.

Keys to the game

This afternoon, the Longhorns must attack the paint. The Owls foul often, and lately the Longhorns have actually made enough free throws to make trips to the charity stripe useful. If Texas can get the Rice bigs in foul trouble, as they did against Pittsburgh, Coach Braun will have to rely on his inexperienced frontcourt reserves. The Owls do have a 7’2″ Egypitan product in Omar Oraby, but he’s only played 10 minutes all season. If Rice gets to the point where he’s eating up a ton of minutes, the Longhorns will likely have an easy victory.

The second part of a commitment to attacking the paint is that it means the Longhorns won’t be settling for threes. That’s exactly what the Longhorns did against the Rice zone last year, and it let the Owls stay in the game for far too long. Until Texas made a commitment to getting the ball to Pittman, their putrid 23% mark from long range was scuttling the offense.

On defense, Texas needs to force Kazemi outside. The sophomore makes his living down low, so if the Longhorn defense can force Kazemi to take midrange jumpers, it will cripple the offense. It will also take him away from the glass, hampering Rice’s ability to rebound.

Texas would also benefit from putting a ton of pressure on the basketball. Jackson and Frizelle, the two guards who play the most for Rice, have a combined assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.62! That’s a number you’d expect from a stone-handed big man, not two of your primary ballhandlers.

As a team, Rice is losing possession nearly once in every four trips down the court. By pressuring the basketball, the Longhorns will not only limit the Owl offense, but will also fuel their own fast break game.

Cheap tickets remain

Sure, it’s cold outside, at least by Texas standards. But one of the many great things about college basketball is its climate-controlled arenas. Take thirty seconds to print out this web coupon and snag yourself $6 tickets to the game. The offer is only good for mezzanine tickets, but on a holiday weekend, you’ll easily be able to sit in the lower level.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 10:16AM

#3 Texas Longhorns (4-0) at Rice Owls (4-1)
Houston, TX | Tudor Fieldhouse | Tip: 3 P.M. CST | TV: CBS College Sports

Rebuilding Rice could be a headache for Ben Braun
(Photo credit: Getty Images)

For the first time in 13 years, the Texas Longhorns will face the Rice Owls in a true road game. During that time, the two teams have played a handful of times in Austin and at Houston’s Toyota Center, but have not played on the Rice campus since the final season of the Southwest Conference. This time, the Owls are playing in the sparkling new Tudor Fieldhouse, a 5,208 seat gym that head coach Ben Braun hopes will lure more recruits to the perennially-weak program.

Rice is off to its best start in years, grabbing victories in four of the first five games. While the wins have come against sub-par competition, they are an important part of instilling a new attitude at a program that was winless in Conference USA just two years ago. Braun led the Owls to four conference wins last year, and hopes to build upon that success in the first season with his own recruiting class.

By the numbers

Rice is a very average team statistically so far this year. Despite the fact that they have four wins, the efficiency stats actually show that they give up 0.021 points per possession more than they score. While that number might seem small, posting a negative differential of any size is incredibly troubling for a team that has four wins, and even more so when those wins have come against teams such as Sacramento State and Houston Baptist. If Rice is less efficient than these weak teams when beating them, what are they going to do in conference play?

The Owls are not shooting the ball exceptionally well, but are making up for it on the offensive glass. They are grabbing 36% of their misses, which is a great help for a team shooting just 40% from the floor. For a comparison, the Longhorns are currently making 54.6% of their shots. Today it is very likely that Rice will shoot an even lower percentage and have an even tougher time grabbing offensive boards against the bigger Texas frontcourt. That combination means that things could likely get ugly in a hurry.

Defensively, the Owls are forcing turnovers and bad shots by their opponents. This season, they have a +12 turnover differential, and are holding opponents to 30% shooting on the season. When you consider that Rice’s lone loss came against the Arizona Wildcats, you realize that their defensive shooting percentage is even more dominant in those early-season wins. If the Owls can continue their success at forcing turnovers, it could keep today’s contest a little bit closer, but will not make much of a difference in the long run.

Connor Frizzelle is leading the Rice offense this year
(Photo credit: Associated Press)

The starting five

Rice is led by sophomore guard Connor Frizzelle, who is averaging twelve points per game this year. He is coming off a freshman campaign in which he started 21 games and scored 8.7 points per contest, and hopes to improve his defense in his second season. He also needs to work on ball control, as he has logged just one more assist than turnover so far this year. One area in which he needs no improvement is three-point shooting, where he is 12-of-22 on the season.

At forward, 6’8″ Lucas Kuipers is hoping to bounce back after missing the second half of last season with a broken wrist he suffered in January. Kuipers has 5.6 rebounds per game so far this year, and is chipping in 7.8 points as well. Although he’s doing well on the glass, he’s not afraid to step out and knock down mid-range shots, something Rice will have to do today.

Joining Kuipers in the frontcourt is Suleiman Braimoh, a junior who plays just 15 minutes per contest despite starting in each game. A Nigerian-born player from New York, Braimoh is not a long-term answer for the Rice frontcourt, but is doing a serviceable job providing leadership and experience for the more talented, younger players that Braun is developing. This year, he’s posting averages of 6.4 points and 4.6 boards per game.

Tamir Jackson is one of those talented newcomers, a freshman guard from New Jersey who was pursued by a handful of Big East schools before he signed with Rice. While he’s a combo guard, so far he has struggled with the basketball. Jackson has 19 turnovers on the year with just thirteen assists, but is still contributing to the tune of 10.4 points per game. While he needs quite a bit of seasoning, Braun believes that Jackson will be a solid anchor for future Rice backcourts.

Thanks to Jackson’s troubles handling the basketball, senior Lawrence Ghoram has had to hold down the role of floor general. Much like Braimoh, Ghoram is a player that Braun is looking to for leadership during these transition years. He has a solid assist-to-TO ratio of 2.5 this season, and improved his three-point shooting over the summer. He has hit 4-of-7 from behind the arc so far and has logged 8.6 points per game.

Navy transfer Trey Stanton is the big man for Rice
(Photo credit: Paul W. Gillespie)

Off the bench

While Coach Braun was hoping to run deeper than the eight men he used last season, his rotation has been just eight men again this year. Texas A&M transfer Bryan Beasley may become the ninth man in the rotation later this year, but so far is playing less than nine minutes per game.

The key man off the bench is 6’10” center Trey Stanton, a transfer from Navy. Although he’s the sixth man, his 21.6 minutes per game is good for fourth on the team, and his 23-point, nine-rebound performance against Furman led the team to victory. Stanton is the biggest man on a small Rice team, so he will likely see a ton of minutes against the deep Texas frontcourt. If he picks up fouls early, the Owls will be absolutely abused inside for most of the afternoon.

Arsalan Kazemi is a freshman from Iran, and is the first D-I basketball player from that country. Rice is expecting great things from the 6’7″ forward, and so far his freshman campaign seems to indicate those expectations will be met. He’s leading the team with six boards per game, even though he’s only on the court for 18 minutes per contest. As he becomes more experienced and demands more time on the floor, Kazemi is going to be a force in C-USA.

Another freshman seeing solid minutes is guard A.J. Holland. His father was a longtime assistant coach in the SEC, and that basketball pedigree should mean that Holland will be a solid leader on the floor. He’s seeing just twelve minutes per game so far, but looks to be a much bigger presence next season, after Ghoram’s graduation.

Keys to the game

This one should be an easy win for the Texas Longhorns, as they have advantages in practically every category. They are bigger, deeper, and more talented than the Rice Owls. Even the crowd may end up being decidedly pro-Longhorn, negating the one edge the Owls should enjoy this afternoon.

With that being said, today’s keys to the game aren’t really necessary to win. But based on what we’ve seen from Texas’ first four performances, they will be interesting factors to watch and use as a benchmark for the team’s progress.

So far, Texas has not been great at controlling the basketball. One thing that Rice does well is forcing turnovers, so this should provide a good test of how far the Longhorn ballhandlers have come since Tuesday’s win over Pitt.

The biggest problem for Texas continues to be free throw shooting. While J’Covan Brown and Gary Johnson have proven reliable at the line and Damion James is making 73% of his free throws, there is not another Longhorn making more than 60% of their attempts. If Texas hopes to be a championship team, that will have to change. Just ask the 2008 Memphis Tigers.

Finally, we will be keeping an eye on whether the Texas guards attack the lane. Without Varez Ward, the only Longhorn who showed any inclination to drive to the basket on Tuesday night was Dogus Balbay. As a result, the Texas offense bogged down when he wasn’t in the game and the Pitt defense collapsed into the lane to negate the Longhorns’ inside game. Brown, Justin Mason, and Avery Bradley will need to start penetrating more often, or else teams will simply force Texas to beat them from outside.

This afternoon’s game might be hard for a lot of folks to see, as CBS College Sports is not available on AT&T U-verse, and is part of an add-on package for Time Warner customers. As always, you can enjoy Craig Way’s radio call from Tudor Fieldhouse, but if you want to see the action, you may have to hit up the local sports bar.

Next Page »