- Ed Graney
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The years pass and frustration sets in, nibbling at your gut like a rat on cheese. Willis Wilson admits to have felt this sensation at times coaching
Rice basketball, knowing inside what his program was capable of and yet never seeing it realized on the court.
He just might now.
The Owls can flat-out play this season.
You hear about Western Athletic Conference ball this year and the names Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii are thrown around as obvious contenders. But it would be silly to discount the small teaching and research university located in Houston and its program that went 19-10 last season and is no longer decimated by injury.
"We've never really had a nucleus like this, one that has played and grown together for a long period of time," says Wilson, who has won a school-record 150 games entering the week while leading his alma mater the past 12 seasons. "We're more athletic than ever before; we have more speed than ever before. We have a chance to be a very, very good team."
It has shown early, with Rice winning three games and capturing the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska. Then, in a game they led by six points at halftime, the Owls gave visiting Stanford everything it wanted and more before falling 60-56 on Sunday.
Few programs have dealt with the injury woes of Rice the last decade, when several players were lost for either a season or their career. But such horrible fortune -- can you see Wilson knocking on wood? -- appears a thing of the past. Rice is as healthy now as it has ever been.
Three full-time starters from last season return. Michael Harris is another who started just four games, but the 6-foot-6 junior forward averaged 15.3 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 62.3 percent as a sophomore.
It's difficult to miss the excitement in Wilson's voice, tempered as it might be right now. He is convinced Rice can win in basketball, that a place where academics are stressed far more than jumpers can compete on a national level and that advancing to the school's first NCAA Tournament since 1969-70 is now more likely than possible.
He points first to the school's baseball program, which won its first national championship last spring. It's all the proof he needs.
"The frustration has been combined with a little satisfaction," Wilson said. "We're just touching the tip of the iceberg in terms of how good we can be. I truly believe we can make a significant impact on the college basketball scene. We're in a great city with a great institution and environment. Kids can come from different parts of the country and thrive here."
And they have. Wilson says his program needs to recruit better locally, but for now it will move forward with players from nine different states and a country such as Austria. Jason McKrieth, a 6-4 junior guard from Schenectady, N.Y., who leads Rice in scoring at 14.3, is one of the non-locals playing well.
"One of the things that attracted me here was the challenge of being a guy who helped put this program on the map," McKrieth said. "I think we're hungrier than in the past, hungry to prove we belong. We look at teams like Stanford and Duke, the blueprints for academic schools with great basketball traditions, and want to follow in their footsteps."
The team's arena (Autry Court) is hardly on par with others in the WAC or, to be honest, much lesser conferences. There is the annual issue of high
academic standards. There is that little thing called a 23-year NCAA Tournament drought.
Obstacles, you see, still exist.
But a few years ago, Wilson and his staff sat around a table and decided to worry only about keeping the team healthy and recruiting a higher caliber
athlete. The head coach admittedly has also matured in recent times.
"I had to let a lot of stuff go and not be so concerned with our liabilities," Wilson said. "It has been a painstaking process. I'm a little wiser now with a more realistic view of things. But I know Rice is a very special place. And I'm sure a lot of people will be very surprised if we fall short of our goals this season.
"But no one will be more disappointed than our team."
Stanford still not painfree
Stanford head coach Mike Montgomery couldn't have hoped for a better start from his point guard.
Chris Hernandez, the sophomore whose career to date has been slowed by foot injuries, was named Pac-10 player of the week after averaging 19.5 points on
12-of-15 shooting and 4.5 assists in wins against UC Irvine and Rice. Hernandez made 8 of 10 3-pointers in the two games.
That's the good news.
This is the bad: Small forward Josh Childress likely won't begin playing until the new year. The junior forward has a stress reaction in his left
Montgomery has said he won't play Childress (Stanford's top returning scorer) until the pain is completely gone, which likely means the conference
season at the earliest. Childress could miss up to nine games, if not more.
Nick Robinson, a junior, has filled in well for Childress.
Stanford is 3-0 but the schedule gets far more daunting on Saturday when the Cardinal meets No. 1 Kansas in one of two John Wooden Classic games.
Around the West
An already thin Arizona team lost a key player for the season in junior center Isaiah Fox, who underwent surgery for a torn left meniscus. "From
the start, I said that one of the things we needed to avoid was injuries and illnesses," said Wildcats coach Lute Olson, whose team is coming off a 78-77
loss to Florida and is preparing to meet St. Louis on Saturday. "That becomes a problem in terms of our lack of depth inside. It will allow more playing
time for (freshman) Kirk Walters inside, and we will have him more experienced as we start league play in January. We just have to hope that we
don't have any other things come up." Fox's recovery time is slated at three to four months.
BYU is many people's pick to win the Mountain West Conference based largely on the presence of seniors Mark Bigelow at a wing and Rafael Araujo at center. But as the Cougars improved to 3-1 on Tuesday with a win against Boise State, junior guard Mike Hall was making the most news. The JUCO transfer is averaging 14.8 points (second to Araujo's 19.0) while shooting 59 percent.
Utah is 4-2 after its 56-45 win against in-state rival Utah State on Wednesday. The Utes needed a victory after a sub-par first five games. Entering the Utah State contest, Utah was averaging 18 turnovers and had made 11 of 41 free throws (26.8 percent) in its three previous games.
Keep an eye on Cal Poly as a definite sleeper in the Big West. Head coach Kevin Bromley, in three years, has led the Mustangs to their first
consecutive winning seasons at the I-A level and his team fell by just three points in the conference tournament final last March. Already this season,
Cal Poly has a victory against Cal.
Quote to Note
"It's pretty much what we expected -- defense and rebounding are stressed every day. He's a hard-nosed coach who can be hard on everyone, especially his best players. I get nine rebounds and he tells me I need to block out more. We get a lot more accomplished in practice now. We're a lot more prepared. This year will really be the starting point for our future."
-- UCLA junior forward Dijon Thompson on new head coach Ben Howland.
Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.