Ben Braun: Year 2

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You see a gaggle of shooters (Trey Stanton, Lucas Kuipers and Connor Frizzelle), yet all Ben Braun can talk about is defense. Your thoughts ponder a Stanton-Kuipers-Arsalan Kazemi frontcourt and all the matchup problems that could present for Rice opponents, yet Braun is lecturing you on the principle of five defenders focused on two opponents. Will this team terrify the opposition with its perimeter scoring? Not before it fully commits to the defensive end first.

If Braun is to stamp his personality on this program in his second season on the bench, the Owls must rebound with abandon and defend with dedication. There are no other options. Braun doesn't expect the Owls to shut down the most prolific scorers in Conference USA, but he longs for a concerted effort on the defensive end of the court. That remains his primary point of emphasis, and defense remains the message Braun aims to deliver as camp opens.

"I want our team to make it difficult for opposing teams to score," Braun said. "I want our defense to make it difficult for us to score in practice. I want no easy baskets, I don't want any cheap fouls. We gave up too many fouls last year, we gave up too many layups, we gave up too many uncontested shots - just things that broke our back in crunch time. We have to eliminate those things.

"If you want to win consistently you have to start on the defensive end. You can hope to out-shoot your opponents, but you're not going to be on your 'A' game every night offensively. You're going to have some off nights or fatigue is going to set in, so what do you do when that happens? If your base isn't defense you're in trouble, so we've got to find ways when we're not scoring or we're struggling offensively to stay in games."

The Owls lost their top scorer from last season (Rodney Foster at 12.0 points/game) but return five players that averaged at least eight points/game (Kuipers, Frizzelle, Stanton, Corey Pflieger and Cliff Ghoram). With the influx of reputed scorers like Kazemi and freshman guard Tamir Jackson, Braun shouldn't have too difficult of a time uncovering offensive production.

And while his roster lacks a traditional post player and experience at shooting guard, Braun is content to utilize unorthodox lineups in order to make his offense proficient. If that means two lead guards on the floor simultaneously, then so be it. Braun at least has the depth to tinker.

"We've got a pretty good idea of what our returning players can give us, and we've got a pretty good idea of what our incoming players can give us although less with them because they haven't really played yet," Braun said. "We're a little steadier in terms of what we want to do.

"We'll be able to go into this year and say, 'Hey, let's try to accomplish this, this and this based on our personnel,' whereas a year ago it was really difficult to try and asses what we could and couldn't do." 

What remains a mystery is who will provide leadership. Foster was a vocal presence on the court and an accountable figure in the locker room, and while Pflieger and Ghoram are poised to offer the requisite senior leadership, Braun wouldn't mind a primary ball handler stepping forward and asserting himself, or Stanton and Kuipers taking a definitive stand and leading.

"We got some guys that are vocal, and we've got some guys that are playing confidently," Braun said. "We need both. A leader has got to be confident. I want guys to be assertive and aggressive, and they've got to play with confidence. It's hard to be a leader when you're not confident and not taking care of business yourself. We've got a couple of candidates that are doing that right now."

While Braun wasn't comfortable identifying those candidates, he had no qualms pointing out who could serve secondary roles as rugged rebounders, defensive specialists and energy enthusiasts off the bench. Suleiman Braimoh certainly fits the bill as a rebounder, screener and hustler, and with so many others capable of scoring in the frontcourt, Braimoh could really find his niche in the aforementioned role. Ghoram, who showcased his toughness playing out of position defensively on several occasions last season, could fill that rugged role yet again.

Braun challenged Bryan Beasley to become dominant defensively, a job that suits his athleticism. How veterans take to being complimentary players remains to be seen, but Braun expects to start the process of identifying who is capable of filling certain voids during camp.

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Thanks for the update. Hopefully we don't find ourselves in a position where we're choosing too much between putting offensive and defensive ability on the floor.

Interesting thoughts about leadership. Who do you think might emerge as leaders?

At Ease: My money is on Jackson and Frizzelle in the backcourt. Jackson just seems to have that natural swagger as a led guard, and by most accounts Frizzelle had a fantastic offseason. I will wait to see what Stanton and Kuipers provide outside of production. Of course, the seniors will have a say, too. - MK

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