HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - On paper, a visit from Rice seems to be the prescription for what ails any Conference USA team.Thus far in league play, the Owls (5-18, 1-8) have suffered seven double-digit losses, including a 61-39 stinker last weekend against Southern Methodist.The Owls own an 0-7 road record and have lost all 10 games away from their nest in Houston. They have yet to come closer than seven points, a 73-66 loss at Tulane.They have functioned all season without seven of their top eight scorers from a year ago, when they finished 19-16 and made the quarterfinals of the CollegeInsider.com tournament. Several were seniors, but other departures hurt - all-conference pick Arsalan Kazemi took his Rice degree and transferred to Oregon, while 7-foot-2 Omar Oraby moved to Southern California.
And there were four others departures to boot. Suddenly, much of what coach Ben Braun had taken four years to build was reduced to ashes.Tonight at 7, those youthful Owls fly into Cam Henderson Center to tangle with similarly struggling Marshall (10-14, 3-6) at Cam Henderson Center. The Owls have lost their last three games; Thundering Herd has lost its last two."They've gone through a transition with guys leaving," said MU coach Tom Herrion. "They're led by a senior in Tamir Jackson, but they've got a lot of young guys getting a lot of minutes."The Herd has played much better at the Henderson Center (9-2 vs. 1-12 elsewhere), but still has a lot to correct from last week, a road trip that resulted in losses to Tulane and Alabama-Birmingham.Those two opponents combined to sink 20 3-point goals in 41 attempts and outrebound the Herd by a plus-12 margin. The Herd has been outrebounded in seven of its last eight games, a sticking point for a coach who is a stickler for strength on the boards."I'm very concerned, at this point, in our rebounding in conference play. It's unacceptable," Herrion said. "We have not been able to understand what our identity is, night in and night out. Rebounding has to be a component and it's not been."These Owls could be ripe for feather plucking on the glass. They have 6-foot-8 Bahrom Firozgary and two 6-7 regulars, but their top rebounder, Jackson, is 6-3, 194. Rice has a minus-11.6 rebounding margin.Jackson (16.0 points, 6.0 rebounds per game) is not only the Owls' only fourth-year player, he would also be their only third-year man. Sophomore Julian DeBose is the No. 2 scorer at 10.0 per game, and freshman Max Guercy average 10.2 points and 3.1 rebounds in league games.Guercy has emerged since the new year, being named the conference's freshman of the week three times. In his last eight games, his assist-to-turnover ratio is a solid 32-to-12.Braun, the former California coach with 608 career wins, is always a steadying force that makes a difference between being mashed every game and being competitive. He's been in worst situations, such as when he inherited a Rice team went 0-16 in league play the previous season."Coach Braun has been around a long time," Herrion said. "I don't really know all about what happened there; they've got their own issues. But his track record has proved he's a terrific coach."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.