Rice Fight, Never Die: Rice Owls Aren't the Team of Years Past

John Royal
Rice's Tudor Fieldhouse holds just a little more than 5,000 people. It's a small facility built in 1950 (renovated back around 2008) that's a no-frills combination of seats and bleachers with a huge balcony overhanging one of the baselines. There's a big, ultra-modern video board over mid-court, but overall, walking into the building is like stepping back into a time warp when college basketball was an afterthought and not the huge moneymaking spectacle it is nowadays.

Yet over the past many years, watching a game in Tudor has been like sitting in a huge, empty aircraft hanger. Attendance has been near non-existent and student interest has been lacking. The place has been lifeless with souls scattered about watching an often hapless basketball team try and stay competitive in a mid-major conference that most of the time offered up only one team to the NCAA tournament, the since-departed Memphis Tigers.

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Hey, Tilman Fertitta, Let's Get the UH House in Order Before Bullying the Big 12

John Royal
An empty Hofheinz Pavilion one hour before Saturday's tip-off
It's a half hour to tipoff and Hofheinz Pavilion is virtually empty of fans. There are a few kids from the UH band, a few fans spaced around the arena here and there and the selected media and game ops folks sitting courtside. But if the attendance tops 100 people, it's a miracle.

Yes it's a Saturday night. Yes the opponent is Cincinnati. Yes the UH baseball team, one of the best teams in the country, is hosting Alabama at Cougar Field. Yes, 8:30 is a bit late of a start time on a night when the Rockets are also in town. And yes, the Houston Cougars are an awful college basketball team. The excuses are plentiful for why no one's inside Hofheinz Pavilion at the moment, but the excuses just cover up for a fickle fan base that really doesn't give a damn about UH basketball.

Last week, Tilman Fertitta, the chairman of the UH Board of Regents made news when he told the Houston Chronicle that he wanted the Texas Legislature to force the Big 12 to accept Houston into the conference. Never mind that the Texas Legislature was powerless to stop Texas A&M from splitting for the SEC. Never mind that the Texas Legislature can only exert some influence over the actions of two of the conference's 10 members. The legislature should just force UH into the conference.

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Rice Owls Begin to Soar

John Royal
Rice basketball hopes to start looking down on its opponents
There's a minute left in overtime and the Rice Owls trail visiting UAB by seven points. The game should be over. In years past, the game would be over. In years past, this game would have been over five minutes into the second half, the point in which Rice's 12-point halftime lead had given way to a UAB lead. But this isn't the Rice Owls of years past.

Through a series of turnovers and three pointers and foul shots and free throws, the Owls tie the game and send it to a second overtime where Rice puts away UAB for the resounding 82-73 win. This game last Saturday's was Rice's third straight conference win -- it's longest such conference streak since 2006-2007. It was the team's second straight two overtime game (it won both). And it was Rice's ninth win of the season and its sixth conference win, planting the Owls solidly in the middle of Conference USA standings. (Rice lost to FIU in Miami by a score of 60-56)

It's a perfectly mediocre season (9-16 record, 6-7 in conference) for just about any other basketball program in the country. In fact, losing records often lead to head coaches being fired. Yet Mike Rhoades, the head coach of the Owls is definitely safe in his job. And he's safe for one simple reason, despite the losing record, the Owls are a much improved team from ones in years past. Ones that, in years past, would've have been blown out by double digits to a team like UAB.

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Happy Presidents' Day! 5 Great Presidential Sports Moments (w/ VIDEO)

ESPN via YouTube Screenshot
It's Presidents' Day, a semi-fabricated holiday made up by somebody who got tired of giving us days off on both Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays. Those were good times, and they've been ruined by one morphed-together holiday where Washington and Lincoln are now each getting just a little bit screwed.

I know how they feel. My older two children were born on my birthday 17 years ago. I'll let you take one guess as to whose birthday gets jammed at the back of the line every year in our family. Yep, old pops!

So George and Abe, I feel you, man. Let's see if we can't properly celebrate you and your presidential ilk in a post here today. How about five of the greatest presidential sports moments in our nation's history?

Sound good? Okay...

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Cougars Trying to Follow in SMU's Footsteps, But Hopefully Not Too Closely

The Cougars aren't there yet, but there might be light at the end of the tunnel
The last time SMU visited Hofheinz Pavilion, the Mustangs defeated the Cougars 75-68. But head coach Larry Brown was ambushed in the post-games about condoning grade tampering by playing freshman Keith Frazier. The allegations arose not from actions taken by SMU but from one of Frazier's grades being changed to a passing grade to allow him to graduate, this coming after reports that Frazier had allegedly improperly transferred to Dallas's Kimball High School.

SMU's basketball went on to have its best season in three decades last season, just missing out on the NCAA Tournament and instead going to the NIT and losing in the title game. Success is expected when Larry Brown's the head coach, and a 27-10 record and NIT appearance was something for SMU to celebrate. The success has continued for SMU this season, and coming into last night's game against the Cougars at Hofheinz, the Ponies were ranked in the top 25, in second place in the America Athletic Conference and looking to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament.

Of course, there's still the matter of Keith Frazier and the grade tampering, and that alleged grade tampering has bought about some NCAA scrutiny on a school that's had more than its share of NCAA scrutiny over the years. The NCAA has ruled Frazier academically ineligible for the rest of the season, and the NCAA has decided to check out allegations of academic improprieties in the program involving not just Frazier but several other current and former SMU players. To those ends, assistant coach Ulric Magli (who coached at UH before going to SMU), the man who recruited Frazier to SMU, has taken an indefinite leave of absence.

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Hold ESPN to the Blogger Standard: If Broadcasting the Game, Then Have Announcers at the Game

If ESPN's going to broadcast the event, then it's announcers should be on location
ESPN televised the UH versus Tulsa game from Hofheinz Pavilion on Thursday night. It was a live broadcast going into the heart of primetime East Coast college basketball viewing. And it involved two teams from a conference to which ESPN paid lots of money for the broadcasting rights. The game wasn't very good -- the Cougars scored only 10 points in the second half and lost 57-44.

Though broadcasting the game, ESPN didn't bother to send an announcing crew to the game. The spots at the press table reserved for ESPN's announcers were empty. There were no TV monitors, no producers, no sideline reporters. Nada. The announcers watched the games on monitors in Bristol, Connecticut and relayed what they saw from those monitors to the viewers watching at home. This was at least the second time this season this had happened with ESPN and the Cougars -- the UCF game at Hofheinz was also broadcast with announcers watching the games from monitors in Bristol, Connecticut.

This happens more often than one would think. Most Formula One races broadcast on NBC Sports Network are done with the broadcasters watching off monitors back in the United States -- any races in U.S., Canada, and Mexico are done with the broadcasters on site, and a full crew is sent out to Europe for the Grand Prix of Monaco. And many soccer games broadcast from Europe are done with the announcers in the U.S. calling the game over the monitors.

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ESPN Broadcasts UH Game but Doesn't Bother to Send Any Announcers

The so-called Worldwide Leader couldn't even be bothered to send any announcers to last night's UH game
It's just a little after 6 p.m. on a Thursday night inside Hofheinz Pavilion. The building's perhaps seven-eighths empty, but that doesn't prevent UH (9-13) and Tulsa (17-5) from tipping off and playing a game of basketball in front of almost no one. Hell, ESPN, which was broadcasting the game, didn't even bother to send any announcers, instead choosing to have them broadcast the game, won 57-44 by Tulsa, from some studio in another state

The Houston Cougars' matchup with Tulsa harks back to those darkest days of Conference USA that UH is trying desperately to forget. But Tulsa's now an American Athletic Conference foe, and the Cougars under new head coach Kelvin Sampson have recently begun showing improvement, pointing to a promise of what the future can be for Houston Cougars basketball. But can there really be a future if there's no one there in person to witness it?

It's not like the Cougars want to play midweek games at 6. It doesn't want the fans battling the height of the Gulf Freeway rush hour just to compete for parking with the day students leaving the campus and the night students showing up for classes. This is done at the command of ESPN, which has a broadcasting window to fill on one of its 8,000 channels at 6 p.m., and it wants that window filled by American Athletic Conference basketball.

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Cougars' Kelvin Sampson Laying the Foundation for the Future

Does Isaac Asimov get a royalty every time that Kelvin Sampson mentions Foundation?
The 13th seed Houston Cougars lost to the 4th seed Maryland Terrapins in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on March 19, 2010. Three days later, UH head coach Tom Penders stepped down from his position. Penders had coached the Cougars to two NIT tournament appearances, two CBI appearances, and its first NCAA tourney appearance in 18 years. He had three 20-win seasons in six years, never won fewer than 18 games, and was arguably the second best Cougar basketball coach in team history.

Since Penders' departure the Cougars have not come close to returning to the NCAA tournament. Yet his departure was met by glee by a fan base that never fully accepted him. His teams were good, but never good enough. He supposedly alienated local area-AAU and high school coaches while relying on Juco transfers. He wasn't Guy V. Lewis. Alumni thought the school could do better.

Penders was hired under a simple marching order: to keep the Cougars competitive and relevant. He did that. The program barely stayed afloat, but he kept it going, kept winning games, and made people believe that the team was just on the edge of returning to national relevancy. But as the past five years have demonstrated for frustrated Cougar basketball fans, the Cougars weren't close. Penders was a magician, working miracles every season while dealing with substandard facilities and limited resources. He made it appear the Cougars were playing on a foundation of granite when instead the program was built on a foundation of sand.

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Cougars' Bad Offense Not Quite As Bad As Rice's Bad Offense

Brian Reading via Wikimedia Commons
Hofheinz Pavilion, where the game of basketball went to die Wednesday night
The Houston Cougars and Rice Owls are bad basketball teams. Both teams struggle to score. Both teams have difficulties shooting the ball. They're turnover prone. It can be difficult watching them play games, and when it's like it was Wednesday night, when the two faced off at Hofheinz Pavilion, it can feel like the game of basketball has been set back 50 years.

The Cougars (8-12) got the 59-48 win over the Owls (6-13) to snap an eight-game losing streak. But it was an ugly game, one with a 22-20 halftime score that saw both teams shoot 37 percent from the floor for the half, brick shot after shot, and throwaway pass after pass. The Cougars were the least worst team of the night, but watching the game, it was easy to see how the Cougars had lost eight straight conference games. And if not for the unexpected strong play of the UH bench, which outscored the Rice bench 17-2, UH would probably have faced a ninth straight loss.

Both coaches were brutally honest after the game. Words like "ugly," "disappointing," "passive," "challenged" and "unacceptable" were freely used by both coaches. UH coach Kelvin Sampson liked his team's effort. Rice's coach, Mike Rhoades, didn't like his team's effort and thought his guys were awful. Sampson didn't think his guys were awful; he just thinks they're challenged.

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The Owls Are Tired of Rebuilding, They Want to Win Now

The Owls are tired of rebuilding and want to win now
There's a new attitude about Rice sports. It started with the baseball team several years ago. And it's spreading with the football team. It's no longer enough to be competitive. It's no longer enough to get the moral victory. No more of the perpetual rebuilding process. Rice sports teams are now expected to win games. Even the men's basketball team.

Mike Rhoades doesn't want to hear about rebuilding plans. The new basketball coach of the Owls expects his team to win, and he expects his team to win now. The team's undersized, and it's undermanned. The guys aren't as talented as many of the players on opposing teams, and they're not quite skilled enough to play the type of game that Rhoades eventually hopes the Owls can play -- an uptempo, pressing game -- but he's not willing to listen to excuses.

The Owls are 6-12 on the season (3-4 in conference play) and lost to Louisiana Tech by a 58-45 score on Saturday night. It was an ugly, sloppy game. Neither team shot better than 45-percent. The Owls hit only 32.6-percent of its shots for the night (an ugly 5-of-19 from behind the three point line). Toss in 18 Rice turnovers and seven missed free throws, and there was almost zero chance the Owls would the game. Louisiana Tech is 15-5 on the season (6-1 in conference) is one of the best teams in Conference USA, so Rice hanging in and staying close could be seen as a victory. But that's not how Rhoades looks at it. His team was sloppy and being close just isn't good enough.

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