It has been an up-and-down season for both of the city of Houston's Conference USA basketball squads. In fact, as the regular season gives way to the conference tournament, both Houston and Rice find themselves in similar situations. Both scored a signature non-conference road upset early on (Arkansas for the Cougars, Texas A&M for the Owls), both beat one of the top teams in C-USA (UH beating Southern Miss, Rice beating UCF), neither team is lacking in talent or reasons for optimism, but both struggled to just .500 overall records against Division 1 opponents.
Both will need to make a miracle run in the Conference USA tournament, and win four games in four days, to get to participate in significant postseason play. But UH did just that two years ago, so why not Houston or Rice this time around?
Without further ado, here's the argument for and against each team making a Cinderella run in the conference tournament:
Houston will make a run because...
They're getting hot at the right time. After a 3-8 start to their conference slate, the Coogs have won four of their last five, including a win over second-place Southern Miss, a 29-point blowout of Tulane, and the end to Houston's three-game losing streak against Rice.
Especially hot as of late is UH's only senior, guard Darian Thibodeaux. Through the team's first 27 games this year, "Tip" averaged just 5.2 points per game, a greater than three point-per-game drop from last year. Former Cougar great and current radio color commentator Elvin Hayes observed that often, it seemed like Thibodeaux wasn't even looking at the basket when he got the ball. But finally, it appears that the switch was flipped. In Houston's last two games, Tip shot over 50% from the field, drained seven three-pointers and scored total 33 points. Even more startlingly, in those two games, the starters who were Thibodeaux's primary defensive responsibility scored a combined zero points on 0-13 shooting. Not bad, considering that the two (Ricky Tarrant of Tulane and Connor Frizzelle of Rice) are averaging a combined 24.5 points per game.
Highly-touted freshmen Joseph Young and TaShawn Thomas have also greatly improved their consistency as the year has gone on. In Houston's first 20 contests, Young broke double-digits in scoring ten times, but also had five outings of 4 points or less. Young has now topped double digits in eight of the team's last nine games. Thomas has had eight games of 5 or fewer rebounds this year, and the Coogs have won just two of those eight games. But during Houston's four-wins-in-five-games streak, Thomas is averaging 9.6 rebounds, never pulling down less than 7 in a game.
At the end of the day, the Cougars are a team with a tremendous amount of athleticism and talent. Getting them to play hard for 40 minutes, play as a team, and play with consistent focus on defense (they're dead last in C-USA in scoring defense, over 5 points per game worst than the second-to-last school) has been a problem. But when it happens, the sky is the limit.
Houston won't make a run because...
They don't have a good point guard or a center. The Cougars are flush with athletes at the 2-through-4 positions, but they don't have a post defender who can shut down talented opposing forwards, and they can struggle in the half-court offense due to the lack of a true point.
And that whole consistency issue is by no means entirely in the rear-view mirror. Even inside of Houston's impressive five-game run is an eight-point halftime lead that was turned into an eight-point loss against Marshall, a 13-point second-half lead against Rice that Houston blew before pulling out the win in the closing seconds, and a measly three-point home win against lousy SMU.
The bracket doesn't do Houston any favors, either. They play UTEP in the first round (a team that outscored Houston by a combined 15 points in their two meetings), and if they get past the Miners, they will face host Memphis (a team that beat the Cougars by 34 points in Houston) in the second round.
Oh, and the Cougars are 1-9 outside of the city of Houston this year.
Quotable: "Harder practices have made us compete harder in the game. Having that will to compete and refusing to get screened, refusing to be driven on and just being tougher. We have not defended as a whole all year but we've defended better the last two or three weeks." --James Dickey
Rice will make a run because...
When things are going well, Rice has arguably the best front court in the conference, in double-double machine Arsalan Kazemi and the sometimes-brilliant 7-foot-2 Omar Oraby. Freshman Dylan Ennis is a legitimate distributor at the point, junior Tamir Jackson provides an experienced scorer on the wing, and there are enough shooters (Frizzelle and Lucas Kuipers) and athletes (Ahmad Ibrahim and Jarelle Reischel) that you can't zero in on any one player.
Oraby is the biggest potential X-factor for the Owls. It's been hard to predict how the inexperienced big man will fare from one game to the next, but on paper, he could have some big games early on. Rice's first-round opponent, ECU, doesn't have a rotation player taller than 6-foot-8. That means Oraby will have a six-inch advantage on anybody who guards him. If the Owls beat the Pirates and advance, they will face Southern Miss, whose sole regular standing taller than 6-foot-7 is Maurice Bolden, who is 6'10", but weighs just 200 pounds, and is more comfortable on the wing than down low. If Oraby comes out aggressively in Rice's first two games, I'm not sure who's guarding him. (It's worth mentioning that a couple of weeks ago, the Owls lost to the Golden Eagles by just two points, in Hattiesburg, even without a strong performance from Oraby.)
And given the way Rice's most recent game ended (here's a refresher: it resulted in Kazemi having to be physically restrained by a teammate), they should be highly motivated to get back on the court and start playing with some fire.
Rice won't make a run because...
On paper, the Owls have a top-of-the-conference type of team. They have players at every position, they have experience, they have a star in Kazemi, and they don't have a major weakness. On the court, it hasn't worked out quite so well. Keep in mind, the Owls will need four wins in four days to get to the NCAA tournament. Rice hasn't had a four-game winning streak against Division 1 opponents at any point this year this year - their longest winning streak was a season-opening winning three-game run against such powers as Southern University, Maryland-Eastern Shore and Florida A&M.
And for as much as Oraby should have a big game against ECU and USM, when facing those two teams this year the Owls lost to the Pirates by 14, and lost to the Golden Eagles with USM's leading scoring sitting out. Oraby's combined line in those two games was 23 minutes, 8 points, and 3 rebounds.
Quotable: "Our primary goal right now is to advance to get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. We know we have to win our conference tournament to do that. That's a tall order but it can be done." --Ben Braun