January 2010 Archives
Three workouts under gray skies and temperatures in the mid- to low-40s made for three hasty intrasquads. The Owls are tentatively scheduled to be off Monday, so the time is right to review the action that unfolded at The Reck this weekend. Format: stream of consciousness.
As Owls assistant coach David Pierce so cryptically noted, there are 34 players competing for 25 roster spots. The glut is on the staff, so Pierce expected the sense of urgency his pitchers displayed during the weekend. Given the overabundance of arms, pitchers are pressed to give all they have every outing because the margin for error is dangerously slim for most involved.
Fr. RHPs Chase McDowell and Tyler Spurlin continue to display the attentiveness required of newcomers angling to make an impact. Spurlin worked three efficient innings on Saturday (32 pitches) while McDowell continues to perform in a manner that makes him a valuable commodity. He has succeeded at spotting the fastball and ably mixed in his breaking ball and changeup, but his poise, athleticism and ability to handle the running game have been critical. McDowell appears comfortable under duress, behavior that is earning the trust of the staff.
While a decision is all but finalized on Fr. RHP Tyler Duffey - "he has the right stuff and potential to pitch a lot" Pierce said - Fr. LHP Holt McNair continues to impress. His "savvy" and awareness of his repertoire are assets, as is his ability to throw his changeup to righthanders and curve to lefties for strikes. He struck out Steven Sultzbaugh and Geoff Perrott on nasty off-speed pitches on Sunday, then enhanced his reputation as the southpaw with the best pick off move by erasing Sr. 1B Jimmy Comerota off the bases to cap his second inning of work.
Keep an eye on Jr. RHP Boogie Anagnostou, who worked both sides of the plate on Saturday while getting strikes with his sinking fastball. Anagnostou has improved his pitching pattern, and The OG is confident that as Anagnostou gains confidence in his two-seam fastball, he'll approach the velocity (93-94 mph) that made him a coveted recruit out of LaPorte High.
As expected, the pitching was one step ahead of the hitting this weekend, and the chilly conditions didn't benefit the hitters. As they get more at-bats against harder fastballs and breaking balls, expect the Owls' position players to rediscover their rhythm and batting stroke.
Jr. SS Rick Hague looked "great" and "very determined" according to Owls assistant Mike Taylor, and given how dedicated Hague is to the concept of steady improvement, that evaluation isn't surprising. Hague is setting the tone for his teammates with his impressive work ethic, a powerful example coming from one of the team's most talented athletes.
Through three intrasquads, So. 3B Anthony Rendon is 5-for-6 with four runs scored, three walks and an RBI. He's going to pitched around a ton this season, and I wouldn't be surprised if he finishes the year with an on-base percentage around .500. Regarding who hits ahead and behind Rendon, Taylor said the staff has, "talked openly about embracing the moment." Whoever precedes Rendon in the lineup will get a steady diet of fastballs, and whoever follows him will come to the plate with two men on base multiple times. In theory, the No. 5-hole hitter could drive in between 75-100 runs because Rendon will be walked frequently.
The Owls flubbed a couple of relay plays prior to Sunday, so before they began their intrasquad they were forcefully devoted to the craft of executing the relay play properly. Otherwise the defense has been solid, especially from those players manning their set positions. Sultzbaugh produced a fabulous running catch Sunday afternoon, robbing Doug Simmons of a two-run double in the second inning. Daniel Gonzales-Luna threw a laser to Rendon at third to wipe out Abel Gonzales as he tried to advance on a Will Maxwell single to right. Fr. 2B Michael Ratterree showed off his strong right arm in the fifth, turning a 6-4-3 double play and erasing the hard-charging McDowell in the process. Ratterree is a skilled player, and like McDowell and Spurlin, he is attentive. With Hague and Comerota providing advice and leadership, Ratterree will be up to speed with the rest of the infield in no time flat.
First victory of 2010? Check.
First road win on the season? Check.
First Conference USA triumph? Check.
Perhaps Ben Braun and Mike Roberts should go it alone more often? I keed, I keed
Just when it sounded like the Owls would blow what was once a 20-point advantage, Jr. F Trey Stanton nails a gigantic 3-pointer to double the lead and lift the Owls to a 69-58 win at East Carolina
. The victory was the Owls' first away from the cozy confines of Tudor Fieldhouse, and it came without the services of two assistant coaches - Louis Reynaud and Kevin Mouton, both of whom were recruiting and one of who (Reynaud) could not make his way to Greenville, N.C., because of the local inclement weather. Braun and Roberts (with a little help from Marco Morcos, for sure) managed just fine as the Owls pulled this one out.
Stanton (18 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks) was huge, perhaps delivering the career-defining moment observers have been waiting two seasons for. Fr. F Arsalan Kazemi proved once again that he is the most willful player on the roster, producing yet another double-double (14 points, 14 boards) and doing so the same day he was profiled nationally by ESPN. So. F Lucas Kuipers (10 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds) continues to make Braun look like John Wooden for inserting him back into the starting lineup, and Fr. G Tamir Jackson (18 points, 3 assists) showcased the poise and leadership the Owls so desperately need. Kudos to all.
Cue Kool & the Gang
! Enjoy this one, fellas, and have a safe flight back to Houston.
Far more interested in your opinions/questions/observations than my personal perspective, but I figured it necessary to touch on a few pressing items as the Owls set to commence with their first intrasquad of the preseason. Weather permitting, the action gets underway Friday.OFFENSE
The defensive positions are ostensibly set, but there appears to be plenty of flexibility as to who hits where in the batting order. So 3B Anthony Rendon will bat cleanup, and chances are good that Jr. SS Rick Hague and Sr. C Diego Seastrunk will flank him in some sequence. Sr. 1B Jimmy Comerota is a better fit in the 2-hole, but he might be forced to lead off a lineup that appears to lack a traditional table setter. If So. LF Michael Fuda develops superior plate discipline perhaps he can fill the void atop the order, but it's doubtful The OG goes that direction right out of the gate. There was some discussion that Fr. 2B Michael Ratterree could handle the job, but he's the lone newcomer to the lineup. Why put such pressure on the kid?
With split squads it's practically impossible to decipher what The OG is thinking with regards to establishing a batting order, but it is advisable to watch carefully when certain players hit in curious spots. Jr. RF Chad Mozingo in the 2-hole? That might raise an eyebrow or two. Comerota at the bottom of the lineup with Ratterree to follow? That would require analysis too.DEFENSE
Because Comerota remains the most trustworthy SAK
this side of West Point, expect Jr. 1B/LHP Abel Gonzales and So. 1B/DH Ryan Lewis to get plenty of reps at first base. Comerota is more likely to play shortstop during preseason intrasquads with Fr. 2B/RHP J.T. Chargois manning second base for whichever team Ratterree doesn't play that position. So. OF Jeremy Rathjen has played a lot more center than left recently, so the assumption is that he will share that position with Sr. OF Steven Sultzbaugh while Fr. OF Will Maxwell works left field with Fuda, who could get some time at second in order to stay sharp. Mozingo and So. OF Daniel Gonzales-Luna represent the platoon in right field. No clue who backs up Rendon.
Can't want to see how The OG parcels the reps behind the plate and at DH. Fr. C Geoff Perrott has been so solid that he allows The OG the freedom to play both Seastrunk and So. C Craig Manuel simultaneously. It might be tough to itemize that extravagance during intrasquads, but it will happen. Manuel physically looks more proficient with the bat, so I wouldn't mind seeing him get multiple opportunities as the lefthanded DH along with Lewis.
Back to Ratterree: He's being pushed by the staff to improve defensively, and his aptitude is tremendous. He has a strong arm and handles turning double plays with aplomb. He moves better to his right than his left, but he takes so swimmingly to teaching that it's only a matter of time before he figures it all out. The Owls have enjoyed the luxury of a series of skilled defensive second basemen (Bucky, Buenger, Holt), and Ratterree could continue the legacy.PITCHING
For the sake of brevity, let's just skip past So. LHP Taylor Wall. He is deserving of his slotting as the staff ace and subsequently the Friday night starter, so we won't delve too deeply into his performances. By most accounts, The OG seems keen on starting Jr. LHP Tony Cingrani on Sundays and utilizing one of his RHPs - RS Fr. Anthony Fazio or Sr. Jay Rogers - on Saturday. Rogers was sharp early last fall while Fazio came on late, so keep an eye out there.
Jr. RHP Boogie Anagnostou is the most experienced option at starting and supplying relief, so expect him to do plenty of both over the coming weeks (incidentally, there is a feature in the works on the talented yet unproven staff. Expect it to hit RiceOwls.com
sometime Friday). How The OG doles out innings to So. RHP Matthew Reckling and Fr. RHP Tyler Duffey is rife with intrigue. Both could start or offer relief, so check how well each does in both roles. Gonzales, Jr. LHP Matt Evers and Fr. LHP Holt McNair appear set as the southpaw middle relief options while Sr. RHP Mark Haynes, So. Andrew Benak and the freshmen trio of Chase McDowell, Tyler Spurlin and Chargois will get turns to work from the opposite side of the rubber. Jr. LHP Doug Simmons might break out as the closer if Anagnostou doesn't lock up the job. Of course, Anagnostou could also work as the midweek starter, so who knows?
Questions? Thoughts? Concerns?
Liken it to Upset defeating Man o' War
at the 1919 Sanford Memorial Stakes, but an undersized third baseman guilty of a dozen errors (!!!)
as a freshman miraculously managed to parlay his one-season wonder into the 2010 Conference USA Preseason Player of the Year. Consider nine league coaches hoodwinked for selecting Anthony Rendon over East Carolina Sr. DH Kyle Roller, who despite posting inferior numbers in a hitter-friendly park last year, is clearly the superior player
. That fact is irrefutable according to one esteemed (ahem) scribe.
Excluding that glaring gaffe, C-USA coaches did an admirable job compiling the preseason team. Aside from building a case for Southern Miss So. OF Kameron Brunty (.336/.437/.502 w/7 HRs and 53 RBIs), it's difficult to generate excessive rancor over the following selections
:PLAYER OF THE YEARRice So. 3B Anthony Rendon (.388/.461/.702 w/20 HR and 72 RBIs)PITCHER OF THE YEARSouthern Miss Jr. RHP Todd McInnis (9-4, 3.73 ERA, .253 BAA, 1.28 WHIP)ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM
P - Seth Maness, Jr., East Carolina (9-3, 4.71 ERA, 2 saves, .287 BAA, 1.32 WHIP)
P - Taylor Wall, So., Rice (7-6, 3.72 ERA, 1 save, .243 BAA, 1.27 WHIP)
P - Collin Cargill, Jr., Southern Miss (4-3, 3.55 ERA, 13 saves, .230 BAA, 1.39 WHIP)
C - Jeremy Schaffer, So., Tulane (.311/.370/.566 w/14 HRs and 56 RBIs)
IF - Victor Gomez, Jr., Marshall (.332/.361/.659) w/18 HRs and 62 RBIs)
IF - Rick Hague, Jr., Rice (.319/.382/.492) w/9 HRs and 57 RBIs)
IF - Blake Kelso, Jr., Houston (.335/.385/.445 w/2 HRs and 23 RBIs)
IF - Jonathan Merritt, Sr., UAB (.317/.384/.465 w/2 HRs and 30 RBIs)
OF - Devin Harris, Jr., East Carolina (.344/.413/.580 w/14 HRs and 48 RBIs)
OF - Chad Mozingo, Jr., Rice (.319/.385/.532 w/8 HRs and 50 RBIs)
OF - Trent Whitehead, Jr., East Carolina (.376/.449/.552 w/7 HRs and 47 RBIs)
DH - Kyle Roller, Sr., East Carolina (.336/.451/.578 w/16 HRs and 75 RBIs)
Additionally, Baseball America released its preseason top 25
. Odd note: No. 1 Texas is the lone Big 12 representative while No. 5 Rice is one of three C-USA teams (No. 18 East Carolina; No. 21 Southern Miss). Anyone ever imagine that pro-C-USA disparity unfolding?
Inclement weather forecast for this weekend might postpone the opening of preseason intrasquads, but here is the schedule for Friday-Sunday (pitchers will work 2 innings apiece):
Fr. RHP J.T. Chargois
Jr. LHP Matt Evers//Jr. LHP Tony Cingrani
Jr. LHP Doug Simmons//RS Fr. RHP Anthony Fazio
So. LHP Taylor Wall//Sr. RHP Jared Rogers
Fr. RHP Tyler Duffey//Jr. LHP Abel Gonzales
So. RHP Matthew Reckling//Fr. RHP Tyler Spurlin
Jr. RHP Boogie Anagnostou//Sr. RHP Mark Haynes
So. RHP Andrew Benak//Fr. LHP Kevin Hahn
Fr. LHP Holt McNair//Jr. RHP Travis Wright
Fr. RHP Chase McDowell//Chargois or Fr. RHP Jeremy Fant
As most of you know, I am disallowed to write specifically about recruits in this space, and given my attitude on the art of pursuing the fluctuating commitments of 17- and 18-year-old athletes, I'm not the least bit remorseful over my restrictions. That doesn't mean that I'm not paying rapt attention, with your reactions to the stream of commitments particularly interesting
David Bailiff is fond of stating that his goal is to craft superior recruiting classes each and every offseason, and few would disagree that he accomplished that mission with his first three classes. Only time will tell if his fourth class trumps the productivity/potential of his third, but place me on the side of the ledger somewhat doubtful of such a scenario ultimately unfolding.
By the close of the Season of Woe, a.k.a the 2009 campaign, the Owls had several true freshmen who had cracked the starting lineup, and even a blind man couldn't help but to notice the spotlight of stardom shining on RB Charles Ross
, DB Phillip Gaines
and DT Alex Lowry
. DB Kevin Gaddis
and LB Trey Briggs
got their turns at bat, and so too did DB Corey Frazier
and DE Cody Bauer
. OL Bobby Janisch
might one day represent the jewel of the Class of 2009 while a handful of redshirt freshmen flashed so much promise during practice that the justifiable reaction is to lustily and continually congratulate Bailiff for a job well done. Winning 10 games, including the Texas Bowl, in 2008 obviously bolstered the recruiting efforts, but if Bailiff proved one thing this offseason it's that he can recruit coming off a 10-loss season, too.
But how well? Of the 16 athletes committed to Rice with National Signing Day just over one week away, six are 3-star prospects. Five more are 2-star prospects, leaving the remaining five starless. Collectively, the group has 14 official offers from programs representing the six BCS conferences, a number that I can't quite figure out how to analyze.
If Bailiff can continually pluck recruits from the clutches of regional and like-minded BCS programs, Rice will develop into a consistent winner under his guidance. But are 14 BCS offers enough for your liking? Are you at all concerned that four commitments failed to net an offer from a program other than the Owls? Are these stats even merited in any sense, or do systemic flaws within the recruiting rankings make it extremely difficult to judge classes across the board?
By massaging his relationship with the Texas High School Coaches Association and selling the value of a Rice degree with earnestness and zeal, Bailiff has become a recruiting force in Conference USA. But if you consider the Class of 2010 potentially more productive than the overwhelmingly impressive Class of 2009, support for your contention would be appreciated.
disposed to take a favorable view of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.
The OG discussed who had done what, who was capable of doing more, and how it all could fit together. He outlined probabilities and potential and productivity, drawing parallels to seasons past as to provide additional support for his argument. By the time he was finished tossing about names and scouting reports on the members of his pitching staff, it felt as though The OG had led the way on some metaphysical journey. And, just in case there was any doubt that he had done precisely that, he reinforced his prevailing philosophy of seeing every campaign through an optimistic lens. Perhaps the unyielding belief that things will ultimately work out in the end explains in part why the Owls have thrived under his leadership.
If The OG can't allay your concerns over the relative inexperience of his staff, he is always willing to provide statistical data that his abundant positivity isn't the least but unfounded. In ways relative to his pitchers, the run-up to the 2010 season mirrors the offseason between the 2001 and 2002 campaigns. First, let's examine what the Owls lost between last year and this upcoming season, and compare staff turnover to the attrition the Owls suffered following 2001:KEY LOSSES FROM 2001
SP Kenny Baugh (13-2, 2.17 ERA, 141.1 IP, .203 BAA, 1.13 WHIP)
SP Jon Skaggs (9-4, 2.65 ERA, 119 IP, .209 BAA, 1.27 WHIP)
RP Philip Barzilla (3-4, 3.17 ERA, 10 saves, .269 BAA, 1.35 WHIP)KEY LOSSES FROM 2009
SP Ryan Berry (7-2, 2.42 ERA, 81.2 IP, .195 BAA, 0.92 WHIP)
*SP Mike Ojala (5-0, 2.17 ERA, 66.1 IP, .249 BAA, 1.31 WHIP)
RP Jordan Rogers (8-3, 4.33 ERA, 7 saves, .209 BAA, 1.26 WHIP)*Ojala will miss, at minimum, the first six weeks of the 2010 season following elbow surgery
The Owls entered the 2002 season seeking to replace their top two starters and ace reliever. Steven Herce, fourth on the '01 staff in innings, and Justin Crowder, a TCU transfer, were thrust into the weekend rotation without having previously establishing the credentials for the responsibility. A quick comparison of their 2001 and '02 numbers reveals that the duo did OK:
Herce (2001): 6-1, 2.37 ERA, .238 BAA, 1.20 WHIP, 68.1 IP
Herce (2002): 13-3, 2.79 ERA, .236 BAA, 1.08 WHIP, 119.1 IP
Crowder (2001 w/TCU): 7-6, 4.81 ERA, .306 BAA, 1.54 WHIP
Crowder (2002 w/Rice): 10-3, 2.00 ERA, .239 BAA, 1.17 WHIP
Herce and Crowder not only proved up to the challenge of pitching on the weekend for Rice (LSU would surely agree), a trio of unheralded freshmen - Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend - plus another transfer - David Aardsma - managed well enough to lead the Owls to Omaha that year. Considering the question marks The OG had concerning his staff entering that season, a 52-14 finish and College World Series berth were as optimistic a set of results as anyone could have imagined. All of which begs the query: Can Rice do that in 2010?
In a sense, the Owls are better positioned for a successful run compared to 2002. Playing the role of Herce is So. LHP Taylor Wall
(7-6, 3.72 ERA, 94.1 IP, .243 BAA, 1.27 WHIP), who is arguably a more accomplished pitcher than Herce was entering '02. Jr. LHP Tony Cingrani
is Crowder, a South Suburban College (South Harbor, Ill.) transfer whose track record inspires faith in his ability to handle a weekend assignment. And instead of relying on true freshmen, The OG can fall back on Sr. RHP Jared Rogers
and RS Fr. RHP Anthony Fazio
to help carry the load as starters. Backing up that quartet are Jr. RHP Boogie Anagnostou
, So. RHP Matthew Reckling
and Fr. RHP Tyler Duffey
. Excluding Wall, there are concerns aplenty.
Cingrani, Fazio, Anagnostou and Duffey are unproven as Division I pitchers, while Rogers and Reckling were a combined 6-3 with a 6.01 ERA over 82.1 IP in 2009. The OG is exhibiting trust in allowing those six pitchers to anchor his staff, and he is extending similar credit to Jr. LHP Doug Simmons, whose dominant fall was a stark contrast to his undistinguished freshman and sophomore seasons. Simmons and Anagnostou will enter the preseason as top relief options with Reckling, Duffey and Jr. LHPs Matt Evers and Abe Gonzales expected to round out the bullpen. Sr. RHP Mark Haynes should fit into the picture and so could So. RHP Andrew Benak and Fr. LHP Holt McNair, but by and large this is a staff seeking ascencion rather than a repeat of past performances because for most, the spotlight is unfamiliar. For Fr. RHPs and relievers Chase McDowell, Tyler Spurlin and J.T. Chargois, it's uncharted territory.
"That's one reason not only has (Rice assistant coach) David (Pierce) been allowed to completely concentrate on pitching but I've spent a lot of time down there (in the bullpen) too," The OG said. "That's been our area of concentration.
"By focusing on what we need to do - and David and I have been completely consistent - I think we have a chance to get these guys really pitching well. We'll see."
The OG is convinced that the message of what the staff needs to execute in order to succeed was presented with clarity and imprinted with precision last fall. His confidence in what his pitchers absorbed, combined with an offense and defense superior to that showcased in 2002, should net a result similar to that from eight years ago. Of course, The OG is being optimistic.
With four weeks remaining before the Owls' season opener at Stanford on Feb 19, it's far too early to delve too deeply into painstakingly detailed analysis of the roster. So, consider these musings mere conversation pieces as the Owls inch closer to the start of intrasquads Jan. 29.
Countless words have been invested in the lauding of the experience of the position players, and rightfully so. It isn't too often when a team fresh off a super regional appearance returns every starter but one (2B Brock Holt) and doesn't feel genuine excitement over its national title aspirations. Because the Owls are ostensibly set on defense with three seniors (1B Jimmy Comerota, C Diego Seastrunk, CF Steven Sultzbaugh), two juniors (SS Rick Hague, RF Chad Mozingo), two sophomores (3B Anthony Rendon, LF Michael Fuda) and a freshman (2B Michael Ratterree) in the field, how The OG utilizes his bench could produce plenty of intrigue.Jr. LHP/1B Abe Gonzales
enjoyed a fabulous fall at the plate and in the field, and considering the Owls' obvious need for another lefthanded stick, Gonzales should figure into the mix if he remains healthy. Of course with Gonzales, prime health isn't an assumption. He has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, turning the precious few opportunities he's had to prove himself against competition into displays of futility. He's totaled just 17 at-bats and 17 mound appearances, numbers far too miniscule to pass judgment one way or another. The talent has occasionally flickered, but Gonzales' run of stability last fall is cause for excitement. So. C Craig Manuel
returned in excellent shape and, combined with his willingness to absorb all that is tossed his way, serves as an ideal backup to Seastrunk. Manuel (.292/.348/.315) didn't flash much power as a freshman, but his improved physical conditioning has yielded greater bat speed, which in turn should provide Manuel the opportunity to generate additional extra-base hits this season. In all likelihood his at-bat total (Manuel had 130 in 2009) should increase either as a reserve catcher or as the starting designated hitter against righthanders. And because Fr. C Geoff Perrott
has proven to be a viable option as the third backstop, The OG will be far more apt to play Seastrunk and Manuel simultaneously in late-game situations.So. OF Jeremy Rathjen
has the speed to be an everyday Division I player, but his bat (.242/.314/.358) must catch up with his exceptional defensive tools. Rathjen made strides at the plate last summer with Santa Barbara, and as was expected, physically matured from the close of his freshman season. Rathjen should be no worse than the Owls' fourth outfielder, and at best could earn a role in the designated hitter platoon as the option against southpaws. So. OF Daniel Gonzales-Luna
rode one scorching stretch of plate appearances into a multi-week span of starts before opposing pitchers stopped feeding him a steady diet of fastballs. Gonzales-Luna eventually came back to earth, but the staff has taken note of his improved ability to handle off-speed pitches. Though his sample size was small (50 at-bats over 21 games, including 13 starts), Gonzales-Luna hit well enough (.360/.411/.480) to remain in contention for a spot behind Mozingo in right. He seems to be the quintessential spark plug.So. IF/OF Ryan Lewis
is the unknown of preseason camp. He ably filled in for Mozingo in right last season and hit reasonably well (.289/.441/.400) in limited action, but he was presented a first baseman's glove last fall and asked to ready himself for a position switch. Should Gonzales continue to develop as the backup to Comerota, Lewis could permanently slide into the platoon at designated hitter alongside Manuel and Rathjen. If Lewis opts to forgo spring football and concentrate fully on stabilizing his swing, additional at-bats might be in the offing.
The OG has several freshmen from which to choose should the veterans not take to their reserve roles. Chase McDowell could manage a corner outfield slot in a pinch while Tyler Spurlin and J.T. Chargois manned first and second base, respectively, during fall intrasquads. With so much depth and experience in the field, odds are slim that The OG will go too deep into his bench and that the reserves will earn their desired number of at-bats barring injury. However, when their number is called they must produce, especially in this heated competition.
In football, as in life, certain opportunities can't be bypassed. Credit David Bailiff for realizing that when David Beaty became available following the Mark Mangino fiasco at Kansas
On Wednesday Bailiff and Beaty consummated a deal that, in all likelihood, had been in the works from the moment Mangino cleaned out his office in Lawrence. Beaty, who spent two seasons at Rice as an assistant for two diametrically opposite coaches, rejoins the staff as offensive coordinator
. He succeeds veteran coordinator/quarterbacks coach Ed Zaunbrecher, who while widely respected, was almost immediately revealed as a poor philosophical fit offensively. Beaty served as receivers coach for two seasons with the Jayhawks following his two-year stint in the same capacity on South Main. He will be a first-time offensive coordinator.
"Rice has a wonderful place in my heart," Beaty said. "It was a very difficult decision for me to leave here the first time that we did. My wife (Raynee) and I both knew as a family that if we had the opportunity to come back here in any kind of role, particularly as an offensive coordinator here at Rice, that it was going to be something we were ready to do in a heartbeat, particularly under David Bailiff. He's a one-of-a-kind guy in this profession."
Beaty being back in the fold works on several levels. He maintains a sterling reputation as a recruiter, especially in the Metroplex, and he had a hand in recruiting several of the Owls who redshirted in 2007. Beaty is familiar with the Rice culture, is beloved by Owls past (James Casey voiced his approval via twitter
) and present (a current offensive player enthusiastically supported the hiring), and was credited by Bailiff as the mastermind of the Owls' up-tempo offense. His vigor is desperately needed on the offensive side of the football, where the Owls responded well to the tutelage of Major Applewhite
and Tom Herman
prior to Zaunbrecher.
Of greater significance is the fact that Beaty is an ascending coach in the ranks. Kansas coach Turner Gill strongly considered retaining Beaty when he replaced Mangino, information that validates the laundry list of attributes Bailiff noted that Beaty brings to the table. Familiarity is fantastic, but following their 2-10 season of 2009, the Owls are in dire need of a rebound. Beaty should help revitalize the offense, especially with the myriad weapons at his disposal.
"Knowing the culture at Rice is a big advantage for me coming in, just understanding the ins and outs of the daily life here at Rice," Beaty said. "As far as being the offensive coordinator, I was very blessed to be under Tom Herman here and Major Applewhite and under David Bailiff, and obviously I learned a great deal from those guys. Just going up to Kansas I continued to broaden my scope of information and knowledge on the game.
"We will try to come in here and continue building on that momentum we had going back in 2007 and 2006 when I was here before. It's going to be a very fun offense to watch (and) it's going to be a very up-tempo style of football. I'm excited about the players that we have here and I know that the cupboard is definitely full."
While Beaty credited Herman for being "one of the smartest guys" 'he's ever been around in his life and for aiding his development as a coach, Bailiff made it clear that Beaty played a key role in the installation of the no-huddle offense that enabled Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard to set multiple school, conference and national records in the season after Beaty departed.
"He's actually the one that taught us the up-tempo offense," Bailiff said. "That was all David that had a background in that. He brought that to the table, and that's something we started implementing because of him.
"He's got a brilliant mind, and he's got a great way with the players. He brings energy, enthusiasm and knowledge, and I'm excited to get it going."
Beaty will meet with the team on Thursday, but for some it will be a reunion. He expressed excitement over the Owls' collection of budding though unproven talent, specifically noting So. RB Sam McGuffie
and the experienced line. What role Beaty fills beyond coordinator depends on the second hire Bailiff hopes to announce in the coming days, for the three previous coordinators also coached the quarterbacks. It appears that Bailiff is leaning toward hiring another offensive assistant, so Beaty could coach the running backs (should Darrell Patterson
, a former linebackers coach, shift to defense to replace Darin Eliot
) in addition to his OC duties.
Whatever shakes down, Beaty will hit the recruiting trail on Monday to personally greet the Owls' current commitments and perhaps to lure a couple of candidates for grayshirting. He is genuinely thrilled over the work that lies ahead, no matter how stiff the upcoming challenge.
"Man I tell you, I'm on cloud nine. For me it's a dream job," Beaty said. "It's something that I've always wanted to do, to be back here at Rice. Obviously as an offensive coordinator, for me that's something I've always wanted to do. But to be back here with David Bailiff, with that guy, I believe in his direction, I believe in his style. I know that we're going to be able to get it done."
Bailiff would prefer for his second offseason staff addition to hit the recruiting trail on Monday, too, so if everything goes according to plan, expect that announcement no later than Friday.
As a few conference commissioners, a handful of athletic directors, and several hundred thousand football fans anxiously wait perched on the edge of their seats for the next series of conference realignment dominoes to start falling, take a gander at these 2009 bowl television ratings
posted by Jay Christensen of The Wiz of Odds
, a fabulous college football site. These numbers confirm what knowledgeable fans already suspected: Conference USA football generates negligible national interest, which explains the chatter of schools seeking to bolt.
Of the eight lowest-rated 2009 bowl games (34 games total), four involved C-USA programs:
New Orleans Bowl (Southern Miss-Middle Tennessee): 0.7 (33rd)
Armed Forces Bowl (Houston-Air Force): 1.6 (t30th)
St. Petersburg Bowl (UCF-Rutgers): 1.6 (t30th)
Hawaii Bowl (SMU-Nevada): 1.7 (t27th)
What is particularly troubling about these ratings is ESPN owns three of those four bowl games: Armed Forces
, St. Pete
. Bowl games on ESPN typically equate to a (relative) ratings bonanza - witness the 200% ratings increase in the ESPN-produced 2009 Texas Bowl (Missouri-Navy) from 2008 (Rice-Western Michigan) when the game was aired in obscurity on the NFL Network. As should be expected, the Liberty Bowl matchup between the C-USA champion (East Carolina) and a second-tier SEC school (Arkansas) carried the ratings flag for the league by pulling a 3.8 and finishing 14th overall. But that solid number merely kept C-USA from finishing dead last among the 11 FBS conferences in average rating. C-USA averaged a 2.0 rating to finish ahead of the Sun Belt (1.55) but behind the MAC (2.2), which dropped 13 consecutive bowl games before Central Michigan edged Troy in the GMAC Bowl.
Finishing near the bottom of the ratings barrel is nothing new for C-USA. In 2008 the league finished dead last in average rating (1.22) thanks in large part to the 0.1 rating the Owls-Broncos matchup produced on the NFL Network. Five of the eight lowest-rated 2008 bowl games involved C-USA teams, including three - the aforementioned Texas Bowl, the New Orleans Bowl (Southern Miss-Troy) and the St. Pete Bowl (Memphis-USF) - ranked in the 30s.
It wasn't much better in 2007, when four of the six lowest-rated games included C-USA programs. The league finished eighth in average rating that postseason (1.57), buoyed yet again by the Liberty Bowl (UCF-Mississippi State) and its 3.5 rating. If not for those matchups with the SEC, C-USA's annual bowl ratings would barely register a blip on the national radar.
So what does this mean for Rice? It's a foregone conclusion that UCF will jump to the Big East if given the opportunity. The Knights' facilities are in order
, and UCF has a large enrollment (53,000-plus) and a budding rivalry with Big East member USF. The league would love to tap into the Central Florida television market, so if Rutgers leaves the Big East to join the Big 10
and help it reach a dozen teams, expect C-USA to lose one of its East Division members.If Missouri migrates north from the Big 12 to the Big 10
, expect a more direct impact on Rice. The Big 12 would be wise to fill that hole with TCU, although many believe Texas provides enough of the Metroplex television market that adding TCU isn't an absolute necessity. Arkansas would lose money moving to the Big 12 from the SEC and leaving behind its share of that gaudy television contract
, so which school would be left for the Big 12 to poach? Utah or BYU from the Mountain West? If the Mountain West were to suddenly have a vacancy, would it fill the void with Rice? SMU? UH? UTEP? The options are aplenty, and rest assured that ADs (very) near and far are already positioning themselves for the upcoming realignment.
Whatever happens next, if C-USA loses UCF or Memphis or one of its West Division schools, Rice can ill-afford to be left behind. If the right combination of schools depart, the league will be left on equal standing with the Sun Belt, and no one on South Main is interested in that.
Leave it to Willis Wilson
to defuse what could have been a tumultuous homecoming with his signature class and grace. He was wise enough to realize the questions were forthcoming, inquiries about his relationship with Rice and a union that ended unceremoniously on the Friday following the Owls' return from the 2008 Conference USA tournament. WTW spoke with Dan Wolken
and did not reveal an axe to grind. He chatted with David Saltzman
and did not offer an ounce of bitterness over his ousting 22 months prior. His mantra? He'd moved on.
WTW made his coaching debut at Tudor Fieldhouse on Saturday night serving as an assistant to Memphis coach (and Kingwood native) Josh Pastner. He returned without fanfare. He spent more than half of his life on South Main, first as a four-year letterwinner, then as an assistant coach and finally as the steward of a program he loved to the depths of his soul. He was a part of the opposition when the Owls fell to Memphis 80-68
, but an outsider in semantics only.Q: You've made it clear that what is done is done, but a significant part of your life was rooted here. Was there any sentimentality when you arrived or during the course of the evening? A:
In all honesty it's a move; it's time to move on to something different. I was here for 30 years, my whole adult life except for one year. It was a great experience. I've said many times that I was blessed to work with a lot of great people. Coming back here and seeing this facility, it's a great facility but it's a facility that this school has always deserved. I wasn't the first coach that was asking for a place like this. I talked to coach (Don) Knodel before the game and this is the same thing he was promised when he was coaching here.
So it's really not about anything for me right now other than basketball. I'm in a great place, (a) great opportunity with terrific people. I feel really, really fortunate.Q: What has it been like serving in the role of an assistant after nearly two decades in charge of a program?A:
From a coaching standpoint it's been fun. It's a chance to breathe a little bit. I think over the years I've been able to use my eye to pick up things, a lot of subtle things, but all in all it's just a chance to step back and really enjoy the pace that things go at in terms of scouting every two or three games, in terms of day-to-day operations and having the chance to interact and be on the floor with players and not have to be distracted with all the things a head coach goes through. It's been fun. It's been really exciting.Q: Has it been a learning process? Was it difficult to become reacclimated with this role?A:
It's not difficult to learn. The time off last year was really good, and it helped me solidify some of the things that I believe in terms of my philosophy with being back in coaching. The perspective that I have now just reinforces that as a coach, especially as a head coach, you have to do things the way that are comfortable for you. I don't try to impose my views or my will on Coach Pastner. It's his program, and he's done a great job of running it. My job is to be more like a GPS and kind of help him get to where he wants to go.Q: You had an overdue opportunity to visit with several people who worked with you during your time at Rice, and you did so in this unique setting. What was that experience like for you?A:
The way things have unfolded for me, I was here (in Houston) for all of last year so a lot of people I've been able to stay in contact with. Obviously I didn't spend a lot of time on the Rice campus, and things have changed a lot in a short amount of time. The one thing I find really rewarding is to see the enthusiasm of the people that have been here for a long time over the facility. The other thing is just to see people take advantage of the opportunity because it's something that the school has deserved for a long, long time. Q: Did coaching a game at Tudor Fieldhouse close the Rice chapter of your career and life?A:
I guess so. I'll be honest: I really wasn't looking forward to coming back here for a long time, and I took a little time just to think about it. Coming back it was a good experience all the way around, from the time I landed in Houston to being appreciated by a lot of old friends and people here in this community. That's been a good feeling. And to feel like I did have a positive contribution on the program, that's a good feeling.
But for me personally, in all candor, the chapter has been closed. Changes happen and I was ready for the change. The circumstances were unfortunate, but at the end of the day it happened when it did and I'm very, very comfortable with where I am and what I'm doing.
In the Land of No Excuses, a steady rain offers no deterrent. There are tasks to complete, schedules to keep and players to evaluate, so when the skies open and precipitation falls, the Owls merely move indoors and continue the process of preparing for their opener at Stanford.
The Owls were set to shift from individual workouts to team-wide participation on Friday, but the rain-soaked surface at The Reck prevented the squad from taking ground balls. The Owls were not slowed from their appointed duties in the batting cage or in the bullpen, however, and in the final analysis the staff was able to prepare full reports on every healthy player present.
With this squad health is key. The three veterans recovering from offseason ankle surgery - Jr. RF Chad Mozingo, RS So. LF Michael Fuda, and So. 3B Anthony Rendon - looked well, with Fuda in particular appearing far more comfortable than he did in the fall. Fuda could ill-afford to miss the time he lost following his surgery last summer, and while he was available to hit during fall ball, it was clear that his surgically-repaired ankle hampered his ability to drive the ball. That no longer appears to be a problem for Fuda, so continued development is expected.
Sr. 1B Jimmy Comerota (knee) is also moving with superior fluidity compared to last fall. The lone position player to report with the slightest of an issue was J.T. Chargois (illness), and he will be back to full speed in a couple of weeks. By that point the Owls will be well on their way to making up ground on their defensive skills, a process that this veteran team takes seriously.
"These guys know what they need to do," Owls assistant coach Mike Taylor said.
Of the 19 pitchers who reported ready for work, Owls assistant coach David Pierce estimates that three-fourths returned in prime condition. Fr. RHPs Chase McDowell and Tyler Spurlin were particularly impressive in their two bullpen sessions this week because both embraced what Pierce and The OG suggested they work on over the break. McDowell exhibited improved body control through his delivery while Spulin was mentally focused on every pitch.
During one session Spurlin repeatedly located his pitches in an ideal spot - mid-thigh down. After arriving with two breaking balls last summer and throwing both his curve and slider during fall ball, Spurlin was asked to combine the two pitches. Thus far the results have been positive, with his curve showcasing the depth of a slider. If Spurlin and McDowell continue to develop their command, both will earn a spot on the staff. For all command equals opportunity.
"If they make good pitches, they're going to pitch," Pierce said of the open competition.
It certainly doesn't hurt having Jeff Niemann around and showcasing the work ethic required to pitch in the big leagues. While lauding the workmanlike mentality of So. RHP Matthew Reckling (who has recovered from his bout with tendinitis and pitched without issue this week), Pierce noted the influence Niemann can have on the pitchers. They don't have to look far or long to witness Niemann working on his own to improve his body in advance of spring training (the Tampa Bay Rays report on Feb. 18), and considering that Niemann earned the honor or 2009 AL Rookie of the Year (he was robbed!!!), his influence on the club is welcome.
Circumstances have turned RS Fr. RHP Anthony Fazio
into something mysterious. By the close of preseason workouts last February, Fazio had gained some separation from the Owls' pack of neophyte pitchers and earned a role as a contributor for a developing staff. But before observers could complete a thorough evaluation of the Beaumont native, Fazio blew out his right elbow in one of his last intrasquad outings. Two weeks later he underwent Tommy John surgery and, just like that, the potential for his producing a breakthrough season was delayed.
Nearly 12 months later Fazio is back where he started last February. His carefully crafted rehabilitation prevented Fazio from making his fall ball debut until the latter half of the intrasquad schedule. When he finally pitched he excelled, but the innings were so limited that gauging his immediate potential proved difficult. In the two months since fall ball closed Fazio has inched closer to optimal health - on Friday he will be released by surgeon David Lintner
. He has progressively regained his arm strength, enhanced a secondary pitch, and worked with such diligence that a spot in the weekend rotation appears his for the claiming. Truth be told, Fazio has spent so little time pitching in the public eye he remains shrouded in secrecy.Q: Were you mentally prepared to make a contribution to the pitching staff prior to your injury?A:
I was prepared. Coach (David) Pierce and Coach (Wayne) Graham definitely gave me all the tools that I needed; I just had to cultivate them. Whenever I got injured I was at every home game, I was doing the radar gun behind home plate and I just learned unbelievable amounts of information. I would listen to Coach Graham whether it was about hitting or pitching - I just wanted to learn about the game. I think that really helped me a lot in my preparation as far as this past fall and through rehab. I just got myself absorbed into the game.Q: Do you feel as though your time invested in the program has bolstered your maturity and, in a sense, that your year of observation might turn out to be a blessing in disguise?A:
Absolutely. When it (the elbow injury) first happened I could have either pouted and laid down or I could have gotten myself in shape and learn about the game more than I already knew. Coach Pierce is always saying that Coach Graham is still learning stuff, and every day I learn something new with him or Coach Pierce.Q: How much more mature do you feel as you get prepared to pitch in the 2010 season?A:
I feel a lot more mature as far as physically, mentally - everything. The surgery really put a lot of things in perspective for me. Whenever I couldn't play catch for four months, I just tried to do everything else that I could as far as listening and watching the game. That really helped out. That was a big part of my success in the fall, just learning how to pitch and watching the guys like Ryan Berry and (Mike) Ojala, their success and what works for them, and then using that (along with) my strengths. Q: What was your interpretation of the success you enjoyed during fall ball?A:
My first outing was about seven and a half months after my surgery, and I talked to my doctor and the guys that I rehabbed with at Methodist Hospital and they said to just go out there and do what I've always done. I was excited - a little nervous - and my first outing went really well and boosted my confidence. My elbow has felt great throughout this entire process.
I'm really taking care of my arm a lot better, and my body. The last part of fall ball was great. I threw about nine or 10 innings over four or five outings, and I had no problems with the arm. It was really good to get out there and get my feet wet again.Q: Can you describe the boost to your confidence that came with not only pitching, but pitching well?A:
I just wanted to make sure my arm was healthy again. It healed and it's still healing, but I feel like my arm strength is getting back to where it was before the surgery. To have success on top of that was a great feeling. To know that all that hard work paid off (was beneficial).Q: What is your approach to the preseason workouts preceding the opener at Stanford?A:
I'm just going to work as hard as I have been working. All throughout the summer I stayed here and took some summer classes and just really worked my tail off at rehab and working out. That helped. I'm just going to continue to do what I've been doing, just really pay attention to Coach Graham and Coach Pierce. They've given me the tools to succeed, and I've got to use those to the best of my ability. That's going to be a key to my success.
Fazio underwent ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction on Feb. 25. By his admission, his change-up has improved 'a ton' and Graham believes that once Fazio fully regains his arm strength, his fastball could be the best on the staff. Fazio was 2-0 with a 2.00 ERA over nine IP (five appearances) last fall, fanning 12 while allowing four hits, zero walks and a .133 BAA.
The OG is rooted in reality, a fact that partially explains his modest acceptance of what will be several top-10 national rankings when preseason polls are released by Baseball America, Rivals.com (via Yahoo! Sports), the NCBWA and the coaches in coming weeks. By his sound logic reputation is playing a significant role in the respect the Owls are garnering nationally, especially considering the unusual number of question marks surrounding their pitching staff.
What Rice accomplished in the aughts - 10 conference championships and NCAA Tournament bids, eight NCAA Super Regional berths, five College World Series appearances and one national championship - was derived from exceptional pitching. Any national survey would intrinsically link pitching prowess with Rice baseball, for the two are synonymous under The OG. The Owls' CWS participants were dominated by pitching, and professional clubs took notice by selecting eight Rice pitchers in the first round of the amateur draft during the decade:
2001 - RHP Kenny Baugh, Detroit (11th overall)
2001 - RHP Jon Skaggs, NY Yankees (42nd overall)
2003 - RHP David Aardsma
, San Francisco (22nd overall)
2004 - RHP Philip Humber
, NY Mets (3rd overall)
2004 - RHP Jeff Niemann, Tampa Bay
2005 - RHP Wade Townsend, Tampa Bay (8th overall)
2007 - LHP Joe Savery, Philadelphia (19th overall)
2008 - RHP Bryan Price, Boston (45th overall)
Those eight pitchers represent the Owls' first-round selections from the aughts. Rice failed to produce one position player taken in the first round between 2000-09, its last coming in 1998 when OF Bubba Crosby was selected 23rd overall by the LA Dodgers. During that span Rice has had only three position players taken inside the first 100 players picked in any given draft.
Here are the first position players selected out of Rice from each of the last 10 amateur drafts:
2009: 2B Brock Holt, Pittsburgh, 9th round (265th overall)
2008: C Adam Zornes, San Diego, 7th round (225th overall)
2007: SS Brian Friday, Pittsburgh, 3rd round (98th overall)
2006: 2B Josh Rodriguez, Cleveland, 2nd round (57th overall)
2005: 1B Adam Rodgers, St. Louis, 25th round (770th overall)
2004: SS Paul Janish, Cincinnati
, 5th round (138th overall)
2003: OF Vincent Sinisi, Texas, 2nd round (46th overall)
2002: 2B Eric Arnold, Toronto, 10th round (296th overall)
2001: 1B Jesse Roman, St. Louis, 11th round (344th overall)
2000: 1B Derek Michaelis, LA Dodgers, 15th round (447th overall)
These selections validate, to a degree, the perception that Rice is a pitching-first program, which takes us back to the original premise. How can a program renowned for pitching lose its staff ace (Ryan Berry) to the Baltimore Orioles, its most effective reliever (Jordan Rogers) to eligibility exhaustion, and its No. 2 starter (Mike Ojala) to elbow surgery for a minimum of six weeks and still open the year ranked in the top 10? A potentially prolific batting order helps.
Of the nine players who recorded at least 100 at-bats in 2009, eight return to the fold. The Owls will replace Holt (.348/.425/.560 w/12 HRs & 43 RBIs) with freshman 2B Michael Ratterree, who might develop throughout his career into a superior prospect (a tall task because Holt was fabulous in his lone season with the Owls). Experienced hands return at 1B (Jimmy Comerota), SS (Rick Hague), 3B (Anthony Rendon) and C (Diego Seastrunk), while the outfield features exceptional talent (LF Michael Fuda, CF Steven Sultzbaugh, RF Chad Mozingo) and ridiculous depth (Jeremy Rathjen, Ryan Lewis, Daniel Gonzales-Luna). The roster is three-deep at catcher (with Craig Manuel and Geoff Perrott) and teeming with athletic freshmen. The OG will have to plug gaps on his staff with relative newcomers and unproven holdovers, but his lineup and defense have been set for months. That is a comforting fact.
All of which represents an intriguing turn of events. For a decade Rice relied on its pitchers to lead the way to Omaha, and at some point the emergence of LHP Tony Cingrani and RHPs Boogie Anagnostou and Tyler Duffey (not to mention the medical revivals of Ojala and RHP Anthony Fazio) could ultimately get the Owls over that proverbial hump. But in a sense traversing an unfamiliar path produces a different set of goosebumps. Instead of top-flight pitchers the Owls will feature Hague (projected by one source as a mid-to-late first-round selection this summer) and Rendon (a surefire first-round pick in 2011) and a collection of capable hitters. Instead of winning 3-1, Rice might regularly bash its way to 9-5 victories.
The destination remains the same, but the manner in which the Owls reach Omaha could vary. Having won one way so well for so long, an alternate method for success is welcome.
Eagerly anticipating Feb. 19? You are not alone
. Even The OG has taken note of the building excitement for the 2010 season, one that began in theory on Monday when the Owls opened individual workout sessions with the staff. These workouts will continue through Thursday.
Of note: Sr. RHP Mike Ojala
threw off a bullpen mound alongside teammates for the first time since the close of the 2009 season. He had been pitching on his own for a month at Methodist, so in many ways Monday represented a significant step in his rehabilitation. He did not give maximum effort - none of the pitchers were required to do so - but he did throw to a catcher and did receive instruction from pitching coach David Pierce. Later during his session Ojala was flanked by Jr. LHP Tony Cingrani, giving indication everything is back to normal.
Almost. Dr. J.P. Bramhall will not clear Ojala for a full return prior to nine months out from his June 18 Tommy John surgery, so while Ojala and the staff continued their playful banter about his traveling with the team to Stanford for the season-opening series, an optimistic return date remains set for the Houston series the first weekend of April. Ojala experienced a minor setback last month, but after several days of rest he resumed his rehab without incident. He anticipates plowing forward through individual and preseason workouts and aims to pitch against live batters the final week of intrasquads in mid-February, following the same routine of RS Fr. RHP Anthony Fazio (who, incidentally, looked fine on the bump on Monday). We'll know a lot more about where Ojala stands roughly four weeks from now, so please stay tuned.
While on the subject of extended absences, So. OF/IF Ryan Lewis
took his first hacks at The Reck batting cage since last June. He did get in some swings at an indoor facility in his native Baton Rouge over the holiday break, but Monday was the first time he faced BP on campus.
It's no secret that the staff covets Lewis' lefthanded bat, and considering he played some first base in high school, his move from the outfield to the infield is merited. But Lewis, who spent last fall ensnarled in a protracted quarterback shuffle at HRS, is the first to admit that his defense needs work and his swing requires reviving. Both will take time, and while he realizes that he is on the clock, Lewis won't rush his development. He plans to be ready by the opener.
"These couple of weeks will be my chance to show the coaches I can still swing it," he said.
How about this for commitment: Sr. C Diego Seastrunk
and So. C Craig Manuel
returned looking Handsome Boy Modeling School
svelte. GDG checked in at 190 pounds; Manuel at 205. So much for the backstops filling up on sourdough stuffing
and apple pies over the break.
Student-athletes casually shuffled about the newly refurbished clubhouse
- which incidentally smells of rich mahogany
- in a scene that inspired daydreams of triumphs ahead. The Owls began individual workouts for the 2010 season with the stipulation that only four can receive coaching simultaneously through Thursday. On Jan. 15 the entire roster can be engaged for upwards of two hours, and two weeks later on Jan. 29 preseason workouts begin in earnest.
The next four days will offer a refresher course on the details that make this program exceptional. David Pierce will oversee five groups of pitchers and catchers during 20-minute bullpen sessions, with 10 pitchers scheduled to work on Monday and nine more set for Tuesday. Mike Taylor will steer three groups of hitters through rigorous paces, with two in the batting cage and two shagging balls. The OG will take inventory of it all, carefully studying pitching mechanics, the subtle nuances of his backstops, and the batting strokes of his position players. These afternoons are carefully crafted yet comfortably efficient. The Owls know what is expected of them right out of the box. While this spring training environment might easily belie the exacting standards of the Rice staff, the Owls are not confused. These individual sessions present opportunities to hone skills eroded by obsessions over semester-ending exams and holiday breaks. The Owls strolled in, but they did so with a sense of duty.
RS So. OF Michael Fuda, Jr. OF Chad Mozingo and So. 3B Anthony Rendon are weeks closer to optimal health from the close of fall ball. Sr. RHP Mike Ojala is primed to work in the bullpen under the watchful eyes of Pierce and The OG. RS Fr. RHP Anthony Fazio closed fall intrasquads with a flourish; now he stands poised to pursue a spot in the weekend rotation.
What was left unfinished two months ago will finally reach a conclusion in the coming weeks. Display command during bullpen sessions and cement a spot in the rotation or in relief. Show supreme bat control and wrangle a role in the platoon at DH or stake a claim to a reserve position at first base or in left field. Stand out in the days ahead and secure a place on the travel roster to Stanford for the opening weekend of the season. This is the time to pounce.
The Owls are on the highway to the Danger Zone
There was next to nothing to wax poetic over from the Owls' 83-66 loss to UH
. Cliff Ghoram was strong early and Tamir Jackson padded his stats late, but otherwise Wednesday night was a forgettable one. For the first time this season Arsalan Kazemi appeared to question his own athleticism, missing several layups while fretting over where Maurice McNeil was coming from. The other 'bigs' made meager contributions despite the fact the Cougars went with a small lineup throughout the contest: Trey Stanton (10 points, 3 rebounds, 0 blocks, 0 steals, 2 turnovers); Lucas Kuipers (5 points, 0 rebounds, 0 blocks, 0 steals); Suleiman Braimoh (3 points, 2 rebounds in only 5 minutes); Emerson Herndon (0-for-3 w/1 rebound in 2 minutes). Connor Frizzelle hit two 3s early and wasn't a factor after that. The bench delivered very little.
But, unfortunately, an offensive offense isn't anything new. The Owls opened league play dead last in Conference USA in field goal percentage (40.4) after all. However, the barrage of shots surrendered to McNeil and Kendrick Washington at the rim was disturbing. The matador defense on the perimeter that enabled Desmond Wade, Aubrey Coleman and Kelvin Lewis to coast into the lane and essentially deliver the ball on a platter to McNeil was troubling. The Coogs were 13-of-20 (65%) from inside the arc post-intermission. That number is indefensible.
Everyone was willing to accept losses as long as progress was being made. But for the third time in four games the Owls gave indication that they are in fact regressing, with their debacle against their Third Ward rivals coming on the heels of ugly road losses at Lamar and TCU. This roster is offensively challenged - we get that - but there is no excuse for the lack of effort on defense. Ben Braun knows this, which explains why he sat at the postgame presser looking like someone stole his lunch money. He wasn't pouting, just stewing in his own juices.
"You've got to control the paint somehow," Braun said, speaking both offensively and defensively. "You've got to either get to the line - we've got to be the team that gets into the paint. We only got 22 points in the paint (UH scored 42). That to me was a little disappointing."
If this team is going to win, or at least be competitive, they must do so with defense. That point has been hammered home repeatedly, and at this juncture one would assume that the players are acutely aware of that fact. Instead, they allowed Lamar to shoot 49.1% in a 77-61 loss on Dec. 23. They allowed TCU to shoot 52.8% in a 70-58 loss on Jan. 2. UH shot 50.0% in scoring the second-most points against the Owls this season. The defensive intensity has waned, and given the limitations on offense, that spells doom against the upcoming schedule.
The Owls, winless on the road, travel to Orlando to face UCF on Saturday. A trip to New Orleans for a tilt against Tulane follows four days later. Then a return home against Memphis on Jan. 16. An 0-4 C-USA start is staring the Owls squarely in the face, and if the Owls drop to 6-11 overall, all that preseason chatter about a .500 record will be extinguished. What then?
If the Owls wish to avoid falling into that pit of despair, they'd better find a means to reclaim their defensive identity. And the staff should devise whatever motivational ploy is needed to coax more out of the Stanton-Kuipers-Braimoh triumvirate than their 19.4 points and 11.5 boards per game. This team proved that it can lose inside-out against the Coogs, so the time has come for them to show that they can win in a similar manner, starting on Saturday at UCF.
When John Calipari took his rule-bending act
(not to mention one
capable recruits) to Lexington, the assumption was reverberations would be felt throughout Conference USA. Memphis' anticipated slide happened to coincide with Tulsa fielding its most competitive and experienced team in years and UTEP abruptly turning its program into Transfer University
. Mix in transfer shenanigans at UAB
and the presumed improvements by Marshall and on Cullen Blvd., and you get a motley mix of teams clawing for a perch once controlled by the Tigers.
If it's flux you want, then it's flux you shall have. Memphis isn't as bad as many predicted, with two of its three losses coming on the road against Kansas and UMass and by a grand total of three points. However, the Tigers' modest (to this point) non-conference schedule has yielded an RPI (120) that ranks fifth in C-USA. The Blazers were expected to take a tumble along with the Tigers, but UAB has managed a wonderfully surprising start both in the won-loss column (with victories over No. 25 Cincinnati and No. 16 Butler) and with regards to RPI (a C-USA-leading 21). Marshall has been as good as advertised (RPI: 47) and Tulsa (RPI: 85) has been both vulnerable (consecutive losses to Nebraska and Nevada in Las Vegas) and powerful (convincing victories over South Alabama and Oklahoma State). UTEP, perhaps the most intriguing team in the league, is finding its level with Derrick Caracter in the fold while UH - shocking! - has been a disappointment with losses to San Diego, Louisiana Tech and UTSA.
Your Fidgety Owls? Hard to handicap a team that can't win on the road (0-5) and is relying (too heavily?) on freshmen. Either Tamir Jackson or Arsalan Kazemi has led the Owls in scoring or rebounding in five of the last six games, a sobering statistic given the talent of Trey Stanton and Lucas Kuipers. The vets have intermittently disappeared for lengthy stretches, and while Jackson and Kazemi have shown no fear and embrace all that is being asked of them, it is unfair for so much to be heaped upon their developing shoulders. Key contributors they should be, but Jackson and Kazemi should not be the straws that stir the Owls' drink.
But given the topsy-turvy state of the league, should anyone count the Owls out of an upper-division finish? Clearly Memphis, UTEP, Tulsa, UAB and UH feature superior talent, but beyond that quintet who should the Owls fear? Marshall is solid but unspectacular. UCF is well-coached, but like Southern Miss has slumped of late. Tulane (RPI: 262) and SMU (RPI: 283) are behind
the Owls in RPI, so an argument can be made that Rice has as good a shot at the sixth seed in the C-USA tournament as Marshall, East Carolina, Southern Miss or UCF.
Over the final two weeks of this month UCF plays Tulsa (home and
away), UH and UTEP. Southern Miss has back-to-back roadies at UAB and UTEP later this month and at UH and Tulsa next month. Marshall plays UAB, Memphis, UH and Tulsa in succession this month. If the Owls can find a way to win a road game of two, a gargantuan task at this juncture, their schedule isn't so daunting that a reasonable run of wins is completely out of the question. Three of four during the SMU-@Tulsa-@East Carolina-Tulane stretch is doable, right? Maybe a four-game run of victories against @Southern Miss, @SMU, East Carolina and Marshall? We've seen this team hang with No. 2 Texas and @LSU, so it doesn't sound outlandish to request consistency against league foes that have proven to be anything but overwhelming.
There is no 800-pound gorilla in C-USA, a fact that should embolden every team in the league. The Owls will take their lumps, but they should rejoice in the fact that there aren't any absolute whippings out there. Even the upper-echelon teams in C-USA can be had, with the right combination of athletic moxie and coaching acumen needed to pull the upset. Surely the Owls can concoct such a mixture on occasion, perhaps even on Wednesday night against UH
The Coogs are paying a visit to the House of Tudor, where the Owls seem to be a different breed of bird.