March 1, 2012
Few teams regularly celebrate success like Rice student-athletes do.
Every member of the Rice basketball team can tell a story. They have memories of grabbing the backpack out of their locker following a victory in Tudor Fieldhouse and meeting up with a study group in Fondren Library. They can each remember walking back to their residential college and spending most of the night studying for a test the next day.
In the past, Rice players have even bolted from game-day shoot-around in their practice gear to take an exam before returning to Tudor for a game.
As evident by their work in the classroom as well as this year's ledger on the court, the Owls are committed to success both academically and athletically.
Last fall the team set a program record for the highest semester grade point average (3.099) and the squad currently has a 3.119 cumulative grade point average, also the highest on record.
And with Wednesday's 68-61 road win at UTEP, the Owls are ensured the program's first winning season since 2005.
"I am really proud of this team's efforts," said Rice head coach Ben Braun. "Not only have we improved our basketball performance over the last few years, we have also really picked it up on the academic side. We ask our players to be successful in everything they do. Succeeding in the classroom keeps with the team's theme of doing the best at whatever you do."
One thing which has led to success both on the court and in the classroom was the institution of a summer program on Braun's arrival. Incoming freshmen, as well as upperclassmen, attend summer classes as well as go through an extensive off-season conditioning program.
For the rookies, the summer classes allow for a head start in learning about the academic challenges at Rice. They also bond with one another as well as the returning players.
"When we got here, we said if our team was going to get better both academically and athletically, we had to make sure everyone was here for summer," Braun said. "It helps our student-athletes become acclimated to each other as well as life at Rice. It is one reason why I think our freshmen have been able to play at an earlier rate than at most programs. Our freshmen get a high dose of academics and athletic training before Orientation Week."
In addition, Rice's coaching staff contributes experience beyond teaching Xs and Os. They have been in the classroom as high school teachers, served as counselors and had responsibilities as academic advisors.
"We have a good environment for our players," Braun said. "Our coaches have put in a lot of time on the academic side. That's unique. With all the emphasis on the attempt to win games, our staff has never lost sight of the importance of academics."
Rice assistant coach Mike Roberts serves as the program's academic coordinator and works directly with Julie Griswold and Mike Yeakel in the office of Academic Advising for Athletics.
"They have done an outstanding job staying on top of our players and making sure they do well," Braun said of the academic team. "Our graduation rates have reflected that fact."
Last summer, Rice Basketball received Conference USA's Sport Academic Award. The award annually recognizes the team with the highest grade point average for each conference-sponsored sport.
"The coaching staff has made academics a priority and so have the kids," Griswold said. "They set goals at the beginning of the year in terms of what they want their individual grade point average to be as well as their team GPA. The coaching staff works very closely with us to make sure everyone is on the right track and Coach Roberts in particular has been very helpful in following through on what everyone is doing."
"We have fantastic kids who value their education. The reason they came to Rice is they wanted a great education," added Yeakel. "Our seniors are amazing. Connor (Frizzelle), Nate (Schwarze), Lucas (Kuipers) and Emerson (Herndon) have done a phenomenal job in the classroom. They have really spearheaded the increase in GPA and set a great example for the younger students. We are all on the same page of what needs to get done and they do a great job of doing it."
Rice is the only team in the league to have at least one scholar-athlete named to the Conference USA All-Academic Basketball Team each of the past five seasons. Frizzelle and Kuipers are both two-time recipients. Frizzelle is also a two-time selection to the Capital One Academic All-District Men's Basketball Team as selected by the College Sports Information Directors of America.
Conference USA will announce its 2012 All-Academic Team on Friday.
Both Frizzelle and Kuipers, along with Schwarze, were all named to the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) Honors Court last year and were recognized last month as R Association Honor Athletes. Sophomore Omar Oraby was also recognized with the honor from the R Association.
The coaching and support staff is demanding but so is attending Rice. It is a unique experience but Braun's staff has successfully intertwined scholar-athletes achieving on the court while receiving a world class education.
While an education at Rice is challenging, Braun said that is what makes coaching at the school so special.
"You have to put in the time. You have to work. You have to plan and I think that all makes you a stronger person," he said. "I think that is why our players and students at Rice in general are so successful. It shows a lot about character."
"We hope that when our players get out of college, they make positive contributions and are successful in their personal life, family life and professional life. The Rice experience is unique. I think our players are better persons because of it."