GAME NOTES: The Rice Owls will try to turn things around as they visit Reed Green Coliseum for Conference USA action against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles.
Rice's last win over a Division I opponent came on Dec. 7 when it outlasted South Alabama for a triple-overtime victory. The Owls suffered back-to-back home losses to FIU (71-60) and Florida Atlantic (73-68) in their first two C- USA tests. The setbacks dropped coach Ben Braun's team to a 5-10 overall record. Rice is the least productive team in the conference in terms of scoring points with an average of 65.9 ppg. The Owls are one of the better teams in the league on the defensive end, where they yield only 69.3 ppg to rank sixth in the C-USA.
Donnie Tyndall's Golden Eagles will also be looking to bounce back as they are coming off of a 75-71 road loss at Tulsa. The setback snapped USM's five-game winning streak and dropped it to a 1-1 C-USA record. The Golden Eagles still have only three losses on the season after 17 games and they appear to be a strong contender to win the conference championship in the new-look league. USM's success has been powered by a tremendous defensive performance. It allows a C-USA low 63 ppg and is ranked in the middle in the pack in scoring offense at 73.1 ppg.
The Golden Eagles had no trouble dispatching Rice when these schools squared off last season and coasted to a 75-52 decision over the Owls. The win was the fourth in a row in the series for USM, which owns a 7-4 all-time series lead.
Austin Ramljak has scored 28 total points in the Owls' two conference games to raise his team-leading scorer average up to 12.6 ppg. The senior guard went 4- of-8 from beyond the arc versus FAU and ranks among the C-USA and national leaders in both 3-pointers made per game and 3-point field goal percentage. Rice has reason to be optimistic for the future due to the strong play of the 6-foot-9, 265-pound freshman Sean Obi. The rookie big man leads all freshman in the league in double-doubles with five after his 14-point and 10-board outing versus FAU. Max Guercy runs the show on the offensive end for the Owls and contributes in a variety of ways with 10 ppg, 3.8 rpg and 3.9 apg.
The Golden Eagles have a very balanced offensive system which features five players with scoring averages above nine ppg. Neil Watson is pacing the squad with 11.7 ppg and is leading the C-USA in free-throw percentage, converting 92.2 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe. Senior forward Michael Craig adds 10.6 ppg in addition to a team-best 7.6 rpg. Jerrold Brooks led the way in the loss to the Golden Hurricane with 15 points. After trailing by as many as 13 midway through the second half, the Golden Eagles fought back to cut their deficit just two with 10 seconds left, but Tulsa put the game out of reach with a pair of makes at the free-throw line on its next possession.
Although USM took a while to get into rhythm against Tulsa, it should have no trouble using its depth to its advantage against Rice. The Owls have been very competitive against decent foes this season such as Texas A&M and Houston, who they lost to by one possession, but they will find it much more difficult playing this feisty Golden Eagles unit in Hattiesburg.
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