2009-'10 Conference USA Preview Issue: Rice

Leroy Watson Jr.Senior Writer IOctober 21, 2009

Where do you go from 3-27?


If you’re Rice University, you (perhaps unfairly) fire the head coach in charge of the train wreck, Willis Wilson, and replace him with a coach (Ben Braun) with over three decades on the bench and a reputation as a man who turns around moribund programs.


First was Siena Heights, an NAIA school that he took to an 8-21 record in his first (1977-’78) season, and 24-6 his second.


Next up was Eastern Michigan. He took the low D-1 program to a 5-10 record after being elevated to head coach during midseason. His first full season was an improvement to 14-15, while his second full campaign netted a 22-8 mark and an NCAA Tournament appearance.


His run at California was an unqualified success, as he garnered five trips to the NCAAs (and a Sweet Sixteen), three to the NIT, and an NIT Title in 1998-’99.


That would tend to indicate that he is due for a strong season at Rice in 2009-’10.


The Owls just might have the talent in place for another remarkable turnaround.


The Owls boast four returning starters from the last campaign: guards Connor Frizzelle and Lawrence Ghoram, forward Lucas Kuipers, and center Trey Stanton.


The Owls, as well as most of C-USA, ran a guard heavy offense, and a key component—leading scorer Rodney Foster—has graduated, taking his team-leading 12 ppg and 70 three-pointers with him.


He also led all of C-USA in three-point shooting (.440) and was second in free throw percentage (.846).


Also gone is a part-time starter at forward, Aleks Perka, who was scrappy but a bit undersized (6’7”, 205) to bang in the paint. He inherited the starting job following a broken wrist suffered by Kuipers, who averaged 8.8 ppg and 3.8 rpg in just 16 games.


Kuipers (6’8”, 220) returns for his sophomore year and looks to be in line to start on the frontline with junior Stanton (6’10”, 230, 8.3 ppg and a team-high 5.0 rpg in 2008-’09).


The race to be the three starters in the backcourt, however, looks to be a wide-open competition.


Based on experience and production, it would appear that Frizzelle and Cory Fleiger would be the frontrunners for the starting point guard duties. Fleiger (8.2 ppg), a senior, was instant offense off the bench, and it appears that he would be a worthy successor to Foster, as he was second on the team in treys connected (54) and assists (69).


Frizzelle, a sophomore, could give him a run for his money after starting for much of the season and leading C-USA in FT shooting (.866) while scoring 8.7 ppg.


Gorham, the senior from Zachary, LA, seems to be a sure thing to start at the third guard/swingman position, with his good size (6’5”, 205), steady performances (8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 25 steals), and string of 62 consecutive starts over the past two years.


This is where an extremely intriguing recruiting class comes into play. Braun hauled in five talented freshmen in the class of 2009, two of whom could dent the regular playing rotation with strong showings in fall camp.


Power forward Egheosa Edomwonyi (6’7”, 225) is very athletic, raw, and strong. His offensive game needs much work, but he runs the floor well, is a good rebounder and looks to be a good shot-blocker, as well. He looks to be a project off the bench.


Small forward Chris Eversley is a swingman (6’5”, 205) from Chicago who is physical for a wing but has limited skills off the bounce. He is a decent spot-up shooter who can score off screens and rebounds like a bigger man. He, too, looks to be a bench player.


Depth at the point guard position came in the last signee, A.J. Holland from Alabama. It was a surprising get, considering Holland’s dad (James) is an assistant at ‘Bama. Holland has excellent speed and quickness with the ball in his hands, pushes hard in transition, breaks down his man on the drive, yet can still hit the open three (41 as a senior).


The two most intriguing possibilities are combo forward Arsalan Kazemi (a native of Iran) and combo guard Tamir Jackson, who prepped at legendary St. Benedict’s in New Jersey.


Kazemi (pictured) had offers from schools such as Arkansas, Cincinnati, and Maryland, and also had feelers from Kansas, Memphis, Syracuse, and many others. Hailing from the Patterson School, he has great size (6’8”, 195, though he could stand to fill out), and tremendous athleticism. He could be starting soon.


He plays with a non-stop motor, is savage on the boards, and has off-the-charts skills. He is still learning the game (though he has great instincts) and needs to be more disciplined to stay away from foul trouble and injury.


Jackson is a bit of a tweener at 6’2” and weighing 180, but he is deceptively strong and has great length. He has only two modes on offense: attack, and attack harder. When he sets his mind on driving, he gets into the teeth of the defense with ease.


He needs to improve his perimeter game, and he may also need to improve his lateral movement as well as vision and make the transition to the point in order to be successful in C-USA. He’s good at pestering opposing ballhandlers.


The talent is assembling at Rice; but the question is, will the victories soon follow?