Seven More Wins?

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Their smiles came easy and shamelessly, connoting a calm and confidence not seen in these parts since Michael Harris, Jason McKrieth and Morris Almond shared one roster and one basketball. Senior guards Cory Pflieger and Cliff Ghoram haven't experienced much winning in recent years, yet they firmly believe that this season the Owls will rise again, not like The South, but like an ascending hoops program on the cusp of something special if not seismic.

A winning season on South Main has eluded both, with the Owls' most enriching effort during their eligibility coming via a 16-16 mark in 2006-07 when Pflieger was a sophomore and Ghoram a freshman. The last two seasons have been particularly miserable relative to W's and L's, the cumulative victory total conjuring memories of a horrid stretch a generation ago.

The Owls were 13-49 from 2007-09, the two seasons that bridged the unceremonious conclusion to the Willis Wilson era and the dawn of the Ben Braun regime. Their overall winning percentage (.210) was reminiscent of the 1977-78 and 1978-79 campaigns when the Owls won just 11 of 53 games, good for 20.8 percent of their contests. As Jimmy Carter conceded to Ronald Reagan, the Owls were mercifully closing a nine-year span where they failed to win more than 10 games in any single season and finished just 24.3 percent of their games with more points than their foes, shuffling through three coaches (Don Knodel, Bob Polk and Mike Shuler) while posting a 24-112 (.176) record in Southwest Conference action.

While two sub-11-win seasons does not equal nine, one can take only so much of displacements and firings and injuries and transitions before the thirst for triumph overwhelms.

"We've been through ups and downs," said Pflieger, a fifth-year senior. "We've been through the facilities, we've been through the coaching changes, we've all had our personal issues as far as injuries. This year we have all the pieces to the puzzle that are necessary to be a good team.

"We improved last year from the year before and we feel like we're going to improve dramatically this year from the time that we've spent working over the summer to the time we put into the weight room and put into our skill work. Everybody has been working and nobody has felt so selfish that they didn't feel like they needed to work. Everybody is buying in to what we have here, and I feel that this is probably the best team overall since I've been here."

Better than the 2006-07 Owls who won two games at the Conference USA tournament? Only time will tell, but with so much promise (intangible) and dramatically improved depth (tangible), can the Owls shoot for a second consecutive seven-win improvement? If the Owls are to post 17 victories in 2009-10, they'll have to finish above .500 against a non-conference schedule that features Arizona, Texas and LSU, but also showcases Furman (2008-09 RPI: 332), McNeese State (RPI: 298) and Santa Clara (RPI: 198). A sweep of the season-opening Rice Basketball Challenge (Sacramento State, South Alabama and HBU are on the docket) would set a positive tone, and another C-USA tournament triumph would greatly aid the bottom line.

How the Owls navigate the conference slate will be key. They improved by four games in league play last season, with another similar victory leap meaning a .500 finish in C-USA. The Owls could very easily drop their opening two home league games (against UH and Memphis), so they would need to swipe two on the road to remain even. At Tulane on Jan. 13? At SMU on Feb. 17? Those dates seem so far away, but the prospects exist nonetheless.

What the present reveals are two veterans undeterred by accumulated setbacks and refreshingly optimistic at what lies ahead. Given all they've endured, from home games on the road to coaching purges to surgical procedures and subsequent rehabilitation, who will stand in the way of their earnest hope for a bright future? If they believe, perhaps they will achieve.

"I'm ecstatic about it, honestly," Ghoram said. "This is about the team, especially as I've matured and gotten an understanding of the things we've been through. You just want to be successful and do whatever it takes to help the team, whether it's me getting assists and those guys knocking down the shots or helping the team out in any way that's for the betterment of Rice.

"I want us to do well as a team, and it takes everyone to be on the same page. I just want to make sure that, as a leader on the team, we're all going towards that."

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What does our interior defense look like?

Kitzbuhel: There is work to be done. Braimoh and Edomwonyi could be decent interior defenders with time, but Stanton, Kuipers and Herndon have to pull their weight. - MK

It's been quite some time since I've been excited about Rice men's basketball, but Braun seems to have things headed strongly in the right direction. Tudor should be rocking this year.

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