Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 3/6/12
HOUSTON - It was important to pay rapt attention to exactly what Rice senior guard Connor Frizzelle said in the moments before the Owls boarded a charter bus to catch their private plane to Memphis, the host city of the 2012 Conference USA Men's Basketball Championship. It is too easy to lose the details in the hysteria of this breakthrough season, to forget just how low the program had sunken and how far the Owls have come in posting their first winning record since 2004-05. Frizzelle, one of four seniors who arrived after Rice hit rock bottom, was qualified to attest to the change and deserved to relish in the moment. "When I first got here, the year before I got here, we had three wins none in conference - to now, my senior year, having eight wins in conference, over .500 record overall and then teams being interested in postseason," Frizzelle said. "You play college ball so you can play in the postseason. It's just like the NBA: you want to make it to the playoffs, and then once you're in the playoffs you see what happens." That the Owls (17-14, 8-8 C-USA) had planned to be stationed on the cusp of their first postseason appearance since seniors Michael Harris, Jason McKrieth and Brock Gillespie led Rice to the NIT seven years ago shouldn't detract from the fact that they realized that goal. Fourth-year coach Ben Braun meshed a heralded class of freshmen with grizzled veterans and then constructed a manageable nonconference schedule so that the Owls could develop confidence. That doesn't mean it was easy. There were highs the Owls' win at Texas A&M on Dec. 22 snapped the Aggies' 67-game nonconference win streak at Reed Arena and there were lows Rice dropped six of eight starting with a New Year's Eve loss at Texas that made it difficult to gauge whether the Owls were on schedule. There was no surprise when their ballyhooed freshmen struggled to adjust, but the Owls were set back when junior leaders Tamir Jackson (a midseason shooting slump) and Arsalan Kazemi (a knee injury) battled against forces set to undermine their seasons. That the Owls persevered might be a greater testament to their success than improvement with perimeter defense or in late-game situations. "I've been proud of our team when we've competed win or lose," Braun said. "We've lost some games that we've competed awfully well in, and you can take something away from that. We want to compete; being competitive is important. And generally when we've competed we've been rewarded. Generally, not always, but generally." The competing component was the most arduous step in rebuilding under Braun. The Owls won a grand total of 18 games (just five in conference) over his first two seasons on the bench before taking a significant step forward last season with their first-ever victory over league powerhouse Memphis, a series sweep of cross-town rival Houston, and a win over SMU at the conference tournament in El Paso. Once Braun welcomed his freshmen in the fold, the last piece of the puzzle was integration. With seniors Lucas Kuipers and Frizzelle critical to the Owls' success this season yet set to depart when the schedule is complete, Braun had to initiate a transfer of power to freshmen Dylan Ennis, Ahmad Ibrahim, Jarelle Reischel and Julian DeBose. Striking that delicate balance while Rice advanced as a program was paramount, and that objective was achieved in accordance to expectations. As a reward the Owls have been so bold as to openly discuss the postseason. When Rice was in the doldrums such talk seemed unrealistic, but by winning six of their final 10 games the Owls earned the right to be so brazen, to look forward with eager anticipation. "It's definitely a big reward for the guys who've been here," Ennis said. "They've been going through so much their four years and finally to make a postseason would be great for them. And the freshmen coming in to have that experience your first year just gives you so much more confidence. Being on a team that pushed through the whole year and could be playing in the postseason is a great achievement." For the first time throughout this process of modest gains, the Owls have turned greedy. Frizzelle blended the one-game-at-a-time clich with the hope of doing so four times at FedEx Forum, starting on Wednesday against East Carolina (14-15, 5-11). Instead of setting their sights low on a third-tier postseason tournament, Rice is aiming high. "Our immediate goal is to pursue our Conference USA tournament (championship) because the grand prize for every team in the country is the NCAA Tournament," Braun said. "That's the greatest tournament. Obviously if you fall short perhaps an NIT (bid is in the offing), and then there are two other tournaments (College Basketball Invitational and CollegeInsider.com) out there. "So we've got a great possibility of playing in a postseason tournament somewhere, but we'd like it to be the NCAA Tournament." Follow me on Twitter at FSH_Owls
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