'They're Rice Players.'

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To watch Owls basketball coach Ben Braun work the bench last season was an exercise in awe. Braun mixed and matched pieces of a roster compiled dually by Willis Wilson and his own hasty handiwork, and the moments when Braun organized those parts in concert were riveting. Lineups alternated and rotations fluctuated, yet Braun exposed windows in time when his experimentation yielded success, primarily via stretches of scorching perimeter shooting.

Everyone realized that the obstacles Braun encountered were temporary. Behind the scenes he was cultivating a recruiting class worthy of raves, and the subsequent belief was that once his recruits arrived, Braun would herald the dawn of a new age. The quintet of freshmen he pursued and signed would serve as the cornerstone for a bright future in Rice basketball. They would be lionized as a Mid-Major Fab 5 of sorts, and few could argue if Braun took that route.

The thing is, Braun refuses to walk that path. Division, it seems, was never an option.

"I don't have my players, I only have Rice players," Braun said. "The guys that are here are every bit as valuable as the guys that we brought in. I don't disclaim the guys that I didn't recruit; I would coach and our staff will coach the players on our team equally. Once you're a member of our family, you're a family.

"These new guys coming in, I think people recognize them as good players. But I don't want them to be viewed as our recruits, or these are our guys. They're Rice players and they fit our team, and actually the players we have returning played a big part in their recruiting so I don't see much separation there. I don't think that's the issue."

Of primary concern for Braun is blending the old and the new. Of the Owls' 13 scholarship players, six were signed by Braun including sophomore guard Connor Frizzelle and the touted freshmen class of forwards Arsalan Kazemi, Egheosa Edomwonyl and Chris Eversley, and guards Tamir Jackson and A.J. Holland. With just two seniors (guards Cory Pflieger and Cliff Ghoram) on the roster, Braun will field an especially young team with largely unidentified roles.

What will Braun do with Ghoram, who frequently guarded power forwards last season, and Pflieger, who endured a miserable midseason shooting slump? How will sophomores Lucas Kuipers, who missed the second half of last season with a broken wrist, and Emerson Herndon, who came off the bench exclusively, embrace roles of greater significance? Can juniors Suleiman Braimoh and Bryan Beasley find niches, and will Trey Stanton adjust to being asked to nail face-up jumpers and score inside? And what to do with those freshmen?

"This is a great opportunity for our coaching staff to take last year's team, maybe some of the strengths, some of the weaknesses and some of the shortcomings, and plug in those things and work on them earlier now," Braun said. "Now that we've got a year under our belt, what are the areas we want to attack? Where are the areas we want to improve to go up a notch?

"Can our new players, the players we're bringing in, help us in those areas? I think they can. It will create more competitiveness in practice and our depth is going to be better. We have to work on some of these things, and we've got a chance to get organized in that area.

"We kind of know what we have, and that helps. That really helps."

What Braun desires to exploit is his roster's versatility. With six forwards listed between 6-7 and 6-8, Braun can put a big lineup on the floor with Stanton in the middle, or he can utilize some combination of Pflieger, Frizzelle, Beasley and the two freshmen guards in the backcourt. It will be paramount for Braun to identify his primary ball handlers and adept shooters, for far too often last season guards were asked to do both to diminishing returns. Braun longs for players capable of completing multiple tasks, but with improved depth comes the greater likelihood of specialization. If Braun can get reliable shooting from one segment of his backcourt, defensive intensity from another, and floor leadership from another, it will free up the posts to concentrate on rebounding and interior defense, glaring weaknesses last year.

Unlike his first season on the bench, Braun has the bodies to make his best-laid plans come to fruition. But that sudden increase in depth could usher in an unexpected set of headaches.  

"The challenge is how do we utilize our depth and numbers, and can we use that to increase our productivity," Braun said. "To do that you've got to give up something. Maybe some guys might play less than they did a year ago, but they may be more valuable to us. We're going to have to get through that as a team. Those are the challenges we have to get the team concept."

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I like that attitude.

This could be a really fun year building the foundation for a real run at the Dance in 2010-2011. Tudor should be rocking with the Horns come to town and hopefully by then people will be excited to see the team BB puts on the floor and we will have a good homecourt advantage.

So is basketball season going to become something to look forward to on South Main? It would be nice to get Tudor rocking.

Agree, good attitude.

Look forward to future reports on what the new class looks like.

With what the Owls have coming back and what the Owls have coming in, this season could be very entertaining.

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