With the rest of the College off for break, The Back Page is keeping up with the Harvard men’s basketball team (12-1) as it finishes the remainder of its nonconference schedule. In the fourth in a series of running previews about the upcoming nonconference opponents, David Freed looks at Rice.
After going 24-6 in 2012, the Crimson opened 2013 the way it finished the previous year, extending its winning streak to eight with a 73-58 victory over Boston College, its sixth straight in the series. In one of its final nonconference games before the Ivy League season opener Jan. 11 against Dartmouth, Harvard travels south to take on the Rice Owls (5-7).
Although Harvard coach Tommy Amaker won his 300th game against Boston College, his counterpart on Sunday has won twice as many contests. Owls coach Ben Braun is one of 12 active Division I coaches who have posted at least 600 career victories. Before his current six-year stint at Rice, Braun coached for 12 years at the University of California, leading the Golden Bears to five NCAA tournaments, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 1998.
Since arriving at Rice, however, Braun has struggled to find consistent success. After leading the Owls to their first winning campaign in eight years two seasons ago, the program struggled to integrate a host of new starters last year and stumbled to a 5-26 record. Similarly, after bringing in a top-three mid-major recruiting class in 2008, Braun and the Owls have failed to attract similar talent in subsequent classes.
Leading the Owl attack will be freshman forward Sean Obi, who averages nearly 12 points and nine-and-a-half rebounds a game, shooting 60 percent from the field. Rice likes to space the floor with Obi in the middle, with three point threats guard Austin Ramiljak (12.8 ppg, 43.1 percent shooting from behind the arc) and forward Seth Gearhart (7.3 ppg, 18 made threes) keeping opponents honest.
The Owls can score the ball with aplomb, shooting 33.4 percent from behind the arc and scoring over 67 points a game. The problem for the team comes on the defensive end, where it allows opponents to shoot almost 35 percent from three point land (42 percent overall) and score almost 69 points a game. A small starting lineup—only Obi averages over five boards on the team—and a tendency for spouts of turnovers (nearly 15 a game) are the chief causes of the team’s middling defense.
The Owls’ current losing record is more reflective of an inability to win close games than game-to-game competitiveness. Rice has lost five times by three points or fewer, including a close decision on the road against Texas A&M. It has yet to notch a signature win, with its best victory so far being a road victory over Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Most interesting to Harvard fans, however, may be Rice’s 14-point loss at home to the Princeton Tigers, one of the Crimson’s chief challengers for the 2014 Ivy title.
Last year, coming off a one-point loss to St. Mary’s, the Crimson thrashed the Owls by 30 at home, 92-62. Then-junior Laurent Rivard knocked down five three pointers in the contest, and Harvard posted its highest points total of the year.
The 2013 victory was Harvard’s second consecutive win in the series, dating back to an 85-64 win over the Owls in December 2009. Both contests took place at Lavietes Pavilion, however, where Harvard has not lost since 2012. The last time the Crimson visited Houston, the team fell, 67-63, in December 2008.
Since last year, much has changed for the two squads. The Crimson came into last season’s matchup at Lavietes Pavilion with a 6-5 record and has run off a 26-6 streak since that game. Heading on the road, where Harvard has won all but one game this year, will not scare the experienced Crimson, which should take care of a subpar Rice squad.