We've had a handful of college basketball games that count already this week, but the season really starts in earnest tonight. Among those playing their first games tonight are the hometown Houston Cougars and Rice Owls.
The Coogs are coming off an NCAA tournament berth, but are in the first year under a new coaching system, and lose their two top scorers, and starting point guard. The losses for tonight's game may not stop there. Point guard Zamal Nixon missed Houston's exhibition game with a sprained ankle, and it is unclear whether he will be ready. Big man Kendrick Washington also missed the exhibition after violating a team rule, and head coach James Dickey suggested that his suspension will continue through at least the opener.
Houston faces Nicholls State, who the Cougars defeated 92-60 to start off last season. The Colonels went just 11-19 a year ago, but return senior Australian swingman Anatoly Bose, who scored 21.1 points per game last year. Second-leading scorer Fred Hunter, a guard from Denton, also returns. Behind Bose and Hunter, the Colonels are among the favorites in the Southland Conference this year.
Look for newcomers Alandise Harris and Darian Thibodeaux to get a chance to slow down Bose. The biggest Colonel on the roster is 6'6", 210 lb Elsik alumnus Patrick Agho, so look for the Cougars to feed the ball inside to leading returning scorer Maurice McNeil.
Across town, Rice finds itself in the exact opposite situation as the Cougars - coming off another disappointing season, but returning nearly every significant contributor. A 10-22 record in head coach Ben Braun's first season slipped to 8-23 in his second. Still, with the return of five of the six players who scored 8+ points per game a year ago, led by sophomores Tamir Jackson (10.8 points per game, 3.0 assists per game) and Arsalan Kazemi (10.3 ppg, 9.1 rebounds per game), hopes are high on South Main.
The Owls begin the season by facing NAIA foe St.Thomas on Friday, before hosting their first Division 1 opponent, Grambling State, on Sunday.