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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Rice still playing, but where?

Rice still playing, but where?
Multiple injuries, courts forcing Owls to wing it
By Dan Wolken
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

HOUSTON -- It probably doesn't matter whether inconvenience or misfortune came first for Rice, but the bottom line for Willis Wilson is that this season's cauldron of woe has been unlike anything he's experienced in 16 years as head coach.

Senior Paulius Packevicius is part of Rice's power, but the Owls basically have no depth to take on the Tigers tonight. Sue Ogrocki Associated Press

Between the nomadic existence his team leads to a spate of injuries that would engender sympathy from even its fiercest Conference USA rivals to the general difficulty of life without star Morris Almond, 2007-08 has not been pleasant at all for Rice (3-12).

"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger; at least that's what a lot of folks say," Wilson said. "We're going through a lot of things right now, and I do think it's a situation where kids are really showing their character. It's not an easy set of circumstances."

At the end of all this, the payoff is a $23million renovation to Autry Court, which was lampooned upon Rice's entry into C-USA for the famous blue curtain at the far end of the playing court. Once finished, not only will Rice's facilities be on par with the rest of the league, but it will be easier for Wilson to get better players.

None of that will help much tonight, however, when the Owls play No. 2 Memphis in a game at Reliant Arena, which is one of three different home courts Rice has used this season.

Though the Owls have played a home game at the Toyota Center, where the NBA's Houston Rockets play, they've primarily been switching between Reliant Arena, a 5,000-seat multipurpose facility, and the Merrell Center in the suburb of Katy, Texas.

Playing in such disparate venues has had a devastating impact on attendance. In its last home game, against Marshall, Rice announced a crowd of 258. On Dec. 29, Rice drew 510 fans to Katy for a game against TCU.

"People have to find us now, and they have to look at the schedule and double check to know where we're playing, and sometimes that makes it easier for people to do other things when they normally would come to a Rice basketball game," Wilson said. "I'm hopeful the crowds will pick up some. When we play in Katy, it's 30 miles from campus, so we hope for the best. It is what it is. We don't get much of an atmosphere out there."

Though there might be a more collegiate feel tonight with Memphis in town, the one thing that won't change is Rice's injury situation. The Owls will have just six scholarship players available, unless guard Rodney Foster makes a quicker-than-expected return from a knee injury.

The need for bodies has been so great that the team has enlisted two football players, Pierre Beasley and Chance Talbert, who played 19 and 15 minutes, respectively, at UTEP on Saturday. Christopher Szalay, a walk-on guard who wasn't with the team to start this season, played 19 minutes in that game and scored nine points.

Two of the injured players, Cory Pflieger and Patrick Britton, would be the second and third scoring options behind senior Paulius Packevicius.

"We have no reserves," Wilson said. "We don't have any depth on our bench, and we're not going to get healthier this year and I think that's unfortunate. Our guys are intent on coming out and really scrapping and fighting and games aren't pretty, but we've managed to be in some games."

The injury situation has been especially cruel, given that this was going to at best be a transition year for Rice, which was able to stay close to .500 the past two seasons because of Almond, the 2006-07 C-USA player of the year. With Almond now playing professionally (he was picked 25th overall by the Utah Jazz), it was understood that Rice would take a step back.

Wilson, however, said the biggest adjustment this season has not necessarily been to Almond's departure but rather the dysfunctional state in which he must run the program day-to-day. For instance, Rice's entire coaching staff and administration is working out of one 70-yard-long room in the football stadium without any windows or partitions to offer privacy.

Wilson described it as a long tube, almost like a submarine, which has made it difficult to do simple things like plan film sessions or staff meetings. It's so painful, Wilson said he's counting down the months, not days, until they can move back into Autry just because nine months seems like a smaller number.

"For lack of a better expression, there's a minimum of one episode a day you just can't account for," Wilson said. "Not having a locker room, not having a meeting room, having multiple teams share a practice facility and traffic coming in and out of the gym. Those are the obvious things. But there are a number of other things I could probably share that you look at and say, 'Wow, that happens to a Div. 1 basketball program in Conference USA?' The good news is hopefully this is the last time we'll have to go through it, so we're all more than willing to bear the brunt of it now because we do feel it's going to be a major, major improvement once it's finished."

With all the adversity, tonight is Rice's chance to turn this season into a feel-good story. And Memphis coach John Calipari declines to acknowledge the Owls' struggles as relevant.

"To watch tape of them doesn't matter," Calipari said. "I don't care how they're playing. When they play us, they'll make shots, they'll block balls, they'll do things they haven't done all year."

Reach Dan Wolken at 529-2365

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