Depleted Owls Stun Cougars

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Rice's Ben Braun looks upward, seeking a little help from the skies.
The Rice Owls defeating the Houston Cougars 79-69 on Wednesday night wasn't surprising. Or rather it shouldn't have been surprising. Not to anybody who has actually watched both teams play this season.

The Cougars are the more talented team. They're more athletic. They have speed, size and length. They're decent shooters, and they have the ability to become a good inside-out offensive team. The Cougars are everything the Owls aren't and cannot be. At least not for several more seasons.

The Owls play a more patient style of basketball. They make multiple passes on each offensive possession, each pass working the ball around to a player with a better, more open shot than the one before him. They play the lanes on defense, and they play defense with the type of intensity that a smaller, less athletic team needs to play at in order to compete. The Owls' big guys play more like shooting guards. The small point guards often find themselves having to handle the rebounding.

The Owls, however, have two things the Cougars do not. The Owls have multiple options at point guard whereas the Cougars seem to have none. The Owls are also better coached. The players are prepared and never surprised by what's happening, and they seem to buy into what head coach Ben Braun is preaching.

This is not to say the Cougars don't buy into what head coach James Dickey is telling them. But he did confess after the loss that the coaching failed the team.

"We've got to do a better job of coaching," Dickey said.

And the UH players admitted that they should've been pounding the ball inside so as to take advantage of the team's height and size advantage, the guards still insisted on shooting long range jumper after long range jumper.

"The post men should've got more touches," guard Joseph Young said. "We should've have jammed it inside and just let them work."

A national basketball writer, several weeks ago, published a list of endangered coaches that included Rice's Braun. That's somewhat understandable if one looks at just the team's record (now 5-15) and look at the teams to who Rice has lost. But one has to remember that the Owls were gutted by player defections over the summer, with the last, most important defections coming just as the Fall semester was starting.

The remaining players are well-coached. Braun has developed an offense that gives the guys open shots and puts them in a position to stay competitive. And the Owls have managed to stay competitive in their losses, even in the seemingly blow-out losses to teams like Memphis, in which Rice found a way to hang in the game with the athletically superior Tigers into the second half. Who knows what might have happened in that game if the Owls had been able to hit a few more of their shots.

"I was happy for our guys because our guys have been knocking on the door. We have outplayed teams -- that's hard to say that -- when you feel like you've outplayed a team, and you don't get a win, in the end, that's tough. I feel for our guys. I'm glad we had the opportunity to outplay a team down the stretch...That's [getting the win] an appropriate award."

One name missing from that endangered coaches list was Houston's Dickey, who is now three years into his run at UH. He's yet to find an adequate point guard to run a seemingly talented team. Nor has he been able to convince his players of the importance of continued effort on the defensive end of the court. And there's nothing more maddening than watching the team which actually has some talented big men then fail to use that to the team's advantage against a small team like the Owls.

"I was trying to tell the guards that, in the first half, we were winning going inside," forward TaShawn Thomas said. "And if we just keep on going inside, they're not as big as us so I felt like we could've kept dominating in there....The coach told me to demand the ball down there. And that's all I was trying to do, just trying to demand the ball."

The 13-7 Cougars should be one of the better teams in C-USA. The squad's young, and it has talent. But they seemingly make the same mistakes every game, and they continue to struggle against teams that are not as talented.

It's easy to see why Braun's name is on a list of endangered coaches. But those who have actually watched the Owls play this season know the problem isn't the coaching, it's the lack of talent -- it would be interesting to see the Owls this season if the departed players were still around. But observers of the Cougars have to wonder if Dickey's name is going to wind up on some such list at some point.

The Cougars and Owls were like two ships passing in the night on Wednesday. The Cougars have the talent, but the future of that talent doesn't look promising. The Owls don't have the talent, right now at least. But give them some time to recover, to bring in some players with size to replace the recently departed, and their future might be nice and bright.

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