Houston and Rice Pray for a Miracle As C-USA Tournament Starts Today

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John Royal
Houston Cougars coach James Dickey
The Houston Cougars and Rice Owls men's basketball teams take to the court again today. Possibly for the last time. Possibly for the start of a miracle run. And while the Owls eagerly look for such a run to happen, using the Cougars of last year as a playbook on making it happen, for the Cougars, it might be best to see the season die today.

It's hard to call the Cougars (12-17, 4-12) a disappointment. There have to be expectations in place for a team to be considered a disappointment, and coming into this season, there were no real expectations in place regarding the Cougars.

James Dickey was in his first year as head coach. There were four returning seniors, only three of whom were expected to contribute significant playing time, but none of those seniors was of the impact-player type, a guy who could take a team on his back and lead them to victory by lighting up opposing defenses or playing shut-down defense. The team was undermanned -- Dickey didn't have much time to put together a recruiting class.

So for the team to do anything, the players there were going to have to play perfect basketball every night. They were going to have to execute the offense to a T. They were going to have to excel at defense. They would need to hit free throws, show up for practice, stay out of trouble.

None of that happened. There were countless player suspensions and players leaving the team. There were too many defensive lapses, too many free throws missed. Eventually it gets to a team, and it's gotten to the Cougars.

Guard Zamal Nixon was around for the run through the tourney last year, and he says the right things about this season.

"The beauty of it is, now, it's conference and everybody is zero and zero," he says. "So it's a chance for us to have a fresh start, right our wrongs....it's time for us to stop talking about that. We feel that we're good and that we're good enough to play with all of the best teams in the conference."

But words aren't enough. The Coogs will face Marshall (21-10, 9-7) tonight. The Cougars lost a close game to Marshall earlier in the season, back when the Coogs were at full strength and back when they seemed to care. If the Coogs should make it past Marshall tonight, they'll face UTEP, in El Paso, where UTEP has easily handled the opposition this season, tomorrow.

Coach Dickey sees this as a new season, a chance to erase the blackboard and start afresh. They need to get right mentally, and they need to concentrate on their game.

"We'll go back...we'll be a lot more concerned about what we need to do going into the tournament," Dickey said Saturday. "The big thing is to get us as right as we can possibly mentally. I think that'll be a big key for us."

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John Royal
Rice coach Ben Braun ponders the games to come

The Owls (13-17, 5-11) feel poised to take the necessary big steps this tournament. They're confident that if they play their game, if they play the way they know they're capable of playing, the way they played in the win over Memphis, that they can go far in this conference tournament.

"We play the way we know we can play, we can beat any team in the conference," sophomore Rice point guard Tamir Jackson said Saturday. "So we've just got to focus. Come in Monday and practice early. We've just got to continue to distribute the ball like we did, and we'll be good."

And Rice can do good because this isn't a Rice team like in years past. This team has talent, lots of talent, and the wonder of the season isn't that Rice won 13 games; it's that they only won 13 games. Forward Arsalan Kazemi is not only one of the best players in C-USA, but he would be a key player on many other teams throughout the country, especially good teams in the major conferences. But this is a Rice team that has lost many, many close games, which is why Rice coach Ben Braun thinks the Owls are poised for good things after Saturday's win over Houston.

"It's huge for our team," he said of the win. "I'm really happy for our players because I really wanted them to experience success and some of that confidence because we've been knocking on the door all year long. We've been in so many close games..."

The path for Rice starts tonight when they face the SMU Mustangs (17-13, 8-8). The Owls lost two of their close games to SMU this season, including one in OT. So the Owls come into this game knowing that they can play with SMU; it's just a matter of Rice finally finding a way to get on top of SMU at the end of the game.

If the Owls can get past SMU, they'll face Tulsa, to whom they lost twice this season, on Thursday before a possible match-up against UAB, the tournament's number one seed, on Friday. It's a difficult path for the Owls, but it's not impossible.

Come the close of tonight, this season could finally be over for both teams. The Cougars are operating on life support right now, and perhaps it's time to let this season die and start prepping for next year. The Owls think they can make things happen. And it's possible that could happen. After all, if the Cougars could run the table last season, what's to say that some team can't do it this year?

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