A Proving Ground

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Just as Owls So. G Connor Frizzelle discussed how the opportunity to play Arizona at the McKale Center brought a smile to his face, he began to smile. Any student of the game is aware of the legacy former Arizona coach Lute Olson established in Tuscon, and the image of the McKale Center - with its final four banners and spirit of numerous All-Americans - is indelible for those who watched the Pac-10 program dominate for the balance of two decades.

It's been five years since the Owls played at an arena revered by those who closely follow college basketball, and Frizzelle was a freshman in high school when the Owls paid a visit to Syracuse and the Carrier Dome on Dec. 22, 2004. All road trips are not created equal, and the Owls' non-conference showdown with Arizona packs a little extra pizazz for the participants.

"You watch college basketball and you know Arizona is a powerhouse name," Frizzelle said. "So when you go there you want to bring your game up to a different level, and everybody is looking forward to the opportunity to show that, yeah, the Pac-10 is the better conference, but in Conference USA we've got some players too."

Conference pride is often the mantra with these intersectional contests, but the Owls could very easily take a selfish approach to their shot at upsetting the Wildcats. Even with Olson having retired, the Arizona brand remains visible as ever, and while this Arizona team isn't as stout as those that challenged for national championships, a Rice victory would mean an awful lot for a program seeking the fast track to rebuilding and longing to establish a national profile.

Sean Miller now occupies the bench and the Wildcats are unranked, but it's still Arizona.

"It's a great opportunity. It's a great way to get a feel for how far we've come and how much we've improved," Owls Jr. F Suleiman Braimoh said. "It's one of those games against a quality opponent that we respect, and we just want to see how we stack up."

Given their victory over South Alabama last Saturday, the Owls appear better equipped to challenge Arizona, even in Tuscon. Last season the Owls scrapped and clawed against No. 6 Texas and No. 4 Oklahoma, but they were outmatched. Their spunk was admirable, but undermanned teams can push for only so long, with the will eventually following the conceding body. The energy the Owls expended in those losses seemed to suggest that the teams were comparable, but in truth the Owls were destined to wear down against insurmountable odds.

An upset seems more achievable on Thursday. Sure, Sr. G Nic Wise and Jr. F Jamelle Horne will present matchup problems for the Owls, and the Wildcats' depth is such that the loss of Fr. G Kevin Parrom (stress fracture) won't completely undermine their ability to compete. But the Owls feature eight rotation players who averaged double-figure minutes while participating in every game of the Rice Basketball Challenge. Three are freshmen - guards Tamir Jackson and A.J. Holland and forward Arsalan Kazemi - but they're valuable contributors nonetheless.

That depth could prevent the Owls from sputtering to the finish like they did against the Sooners, and it should enable them to commit to the stifling brand of defense that punctuated their victories over Sacramento State, South Alabama and HBU over last weekend. The Hornets, Jaguars and Huskies shot a combined 57-for-162 (35.2%) against Rice, and if the Owls can continually run fresh bodies of their bench and defend with relentless passion, what typically happens to inferior teams in the second half as they battle talent-laden opponents might not unfold. If the Owls play well early, perhaps they can maintain their vigor throughout.

"It's one thing to come out on fire and to come out and bring the fight to them, but we've got to sustain that for 40 minutes," Braimoh said. "That's one thing that we can do this year. With the depth that we have and the different skill set of the players we have, we definitely can sustain that fight for a 40-minute stretch if we play together."

The Owls' camaraderie and toughness paid dividends when South Alabama attempted to trap its way back into contention after Rice built a double-digit lead. The Owls thwarted that effort, and while Arizona has superior athleticism, the Owls at least know what they can accomplish.

The Owls' season will not hinge on the result of this one non-conference affair, but a marvelous performance will only embolden the resolve the Owls have began to develop. Play well and return home with the knowledge that a marked improvement over last year's 10-win season is plausible. Beat Arizona and fly back to Houston without the courtesy of an airplane.

"One thing I try to convey to the rest of the team as an upperclassman is it's just another game," Braimoh said. "It's one thing to get hype off the basketball court, but once you get in between those four lines it's just basketball. It's you, the hoop and your opponent, and may the best team win every time. Hopefully that's us."

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It should be interesting to see how the young players respond to their first road test. Jackson and Kazemi have been in the spotlight before, hopefully they are ready to perform.

I will be very happy to play within 10 of the Wildcats. I love the schedule BB has put together to get the Owls in the best possible position going into CUSA play. The big thing is that we play well on the road something that has been missing for a long time with Owl hoops.

Saw the USA game and have to say this is a fun team to watch. Looking forward to a good year, even if we may not quite be ready to challenge for the top of CUSA, we should be in a lot of games. Go Owls!

Saw all three games this past weekend and was elated to see the intensity level with which our young men played. This could be a season with a lot of surprises b/c there is some really good raw talent out there on the court. Braun will have to bring it together, of course, but he's off to a good start. This group can be the nucleus of taking things to the next level. I'm excited.

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