The moment began in a routine manner at a recent practice in Fox Gym. Max Guercy cut hard to the basket off a ball screen and passed to a teammate in the corner for an open shot. The junior guard had run the play dozens of times before in practice, if not more. Senior Seth Gearhart caught the pass and knocked down his shot to give their team the win for the particular drill.
But what happened next caught Guercy completely off guard.
"Coach Rhoades ran over to me, grabbed me, and kissed me on the forehead. He literally kissed me on the forehead! That's never happened in my whole basketball career where a coach kissed me on my forehead. He told me `You made a great play and I love you, kid.' That was just something special."
The gesture may seem small and fueled by excitement in the heat of the moment in an intense practice, but Guercy viewed it as symbolic of the culture change that has been rooted in the Rice Basketball program since head coach Mike Rhoades' arrival last spring. Guercy had followed instructions exactly as his coaches had asked - to cut as hard as he could to the basket and make the best play for his team to succeed.
Rhoades' arrival on South Main came at a crossroads for Guercy, who had just completed his sophomore season as the Owls' point guard, with his college career at its midpoint. While some players might prefer to fight the change and attempt to stick to the status quo, Max and his teammates took the opposite approach and welcomed the challenges ahead.
"I wouldn't say it's been quite a shock, but it has been very different this year. I think it's for the better, not only from my past two years but also for the future of Rice Basketball. Coach Rhoades brings the same intensity every day and it's what we expect now. It's good for us. Every day is something new and we have to get better every day and he keeps stressing it to us. He holds us to a high expectation and I think that's how it should be. Every day in practice and in games, he expects us to be our best. With a coach like that who keeps telling us to bring our best, the only thing we can do is get better. It's good for us."
Now in his junior season, Guercy is looked to as a team leader as he started every game in each of his first two seasons and ran that streak to 70-straight in the Owls' recent win over St. Thomas. Even with two full seasons and preseason camps under his belt, this year's preparations for the season immediately took a different tone. In addition to a new coaching staff, the Owls roster featured a bevy of newcomers.
Guercy assessed the young players' progress since arriving on campus and what advice he dispenses to them as they become the next generation of the program over the next few years.
"The young guys are doing pretty well. I feel like they've been here most of the time since Coach Rhoades got here, so that has helped them know what is expected of the team. It seems like they're getting better every day. I think they play extremely hard and they work hard and their voice is going to change over the next few years as they come along and gain more experience."
The upperclassman also keeps a bond with his elders in four-year seniors Gearhart and Dan Peera. Though they know they still have lots of work ahead of them, Guercy says the group occasionally reflects on how far the team has already come.
"We knew drastic changes were happening here since the first couple of weeks with Coach Rhoades. We would talk about how the past was and what it is now. We were practically in shock at first. We got over the initial feeling and we know what to expect in practice and games now."
This type of on-the-fly adjustment is great training for Guercy and his leadership skills. As the only junior on the roster, Guercy has a tall task ahead.
"I realized before the season that next year I will be the only senior in my class. I try not to think so far ahead, but I definitely realized it and thought `Oh wow - I'll be a senior next year and I'll be the only one.' I think it will be good and I'll have to do what seniors do."
There's no doubt Guercy will be prepared to lead when the time comes. In addition to this year's group, which is quickly gaining experience, the team will bring in another young crop of players to continue to build the program and experience more unexpected moments at practice and beyond.
Lamar Holds Off Rice, 87-81
Despite a pair of individual 20-point efforts and defensive pressure which helped erase most of a 16-point deficit, Rice could not overcome Lamar's fast start as the Cardinals held on for an 87-81 win Saturday in Tudor Fieldhouse.