Tipoff: 8:00 PM, 1/26
The Line: Rice by 5
There will be a lot on the line when the Cougars travel across town to take on the Owls on Wednesday, including Houston's 8-game winning streak over Rice. The last time the Owls notched a victory over their primary rivals, the teams' premier players were Oliver Lafayette and Morris Almond.
Even if it weren't a rivalry game, there would still be plenty at stake for two young teams fighting to establish an identity. Rice has won just five conference games the previous three seasons, but features the most talented group they've had since Almond graduated. While that group has had some impressive close losses (by 3 at UT-Austin, by 6 versus Miami), they have struggled to pull out wins in tight games. They enter Wednesday's contest with a 3-7 record in games decided by six points of fewer. Any hopes that playing close against tough competition would prepare them for C-USA play seemed lost when they opened conference play with four straight losses, but they did jump on the "Let's beat UCF, everybody else is doing it" bandwagon this weekend to get off the schnide.
On the Cougars' sideline, there is the desire to prove that a forgettable non-conference schedule is behind them, and that the inexperienced UH roster is among the top contenders in Conference USA. When the Coogs opened conference play with a non-competitive loss at Southern Miss, it appeared that the season was lost. But Houston stormed back to life, knocking off then-undefeated Central Florida; having only seven players available, and still topping an SMU team that had just knocked off Memphis; and edging out Tulsa in front of a raucous Houston crowd. But the Cougars suffered their second home loss of the year on Saturday, at the hands of a tough UTEP squad.
Losing to a more experienced Miner squad isn't necessarily a reason to hang your head in shame, but the game did expose a flaw that head coach James Dickey will have to have ironed out before tip-off on Wednesday. When the Cougars utilized Kirk Van Slyke and Alandise Harris at the forward positions, the offense ran better, but UTEP's bigs were able to impose their will inside. With Maurice McNeil and Kendrick Washington on the floor for Houston, the inside match-up evened out, but the offense struggled. Both McNeil (suspension) and Washington (elbow injury) have missed time lately, but the Cougars will need them back in the swing of things, because they aren't drawing any easier an assignment with Arsalan Kazemi (16.3 points, 11.3 rebounds per game) and Trey Stanton (6.7, 4.8) waiting in the wings.
If the Cougars can stop Kazemi and slashing winger Tamir Jackson from beating them, look for three-point shooting to give UH the edge. The Coogs have been very accurate from long range on the season (38.9% shooting as a team), and have hit 28 treys in the last four games. Rice has been susceptible to the outside shot, allowing opponents to shoot a hair until 39% from three-point land.
On the other side of the ball, Rice has some players on the roster who can stroke it from outside - Connor Frizzelle, Lucas Kuipers and Cory Pfleiger especially - but the Cougars have put the clamps on opposing teams shooting the ball from long range, allowing a shooting percentage of under 29%.
Jackson and Kazemi are good players, but I don't think they will have quite enough help. In my gut, I think the Cougars pull this one out.