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Forgettable year finally over for Rice

rob gaddi/thresher
Sophomore center T.J. McKenzie has his shot contested by a University of Texas at El Paso defender. Rice beat UTEP 62-59 on Feb. 24 in its last win of the year.
The good news is that it's finally over. The bad news is that it left an extremely bad taste in all of our mouths.

The University of Tulsa mercifully ended the suffering last weekend, ending Rice's men's basketball season with a 71-51 win over the beleaguered Owls in the first round of the Western Athletic Conference tournament.

The loss dropped Rice to a woeful 5-22 on the year, the school's worst finish since the 1977-'78 team finished 4-22.

The season was marred by a 15-game losing streak, a 1-13 finish in WAC play and a seemingly endless string of injuries that sidelined two starters for the majority of the campaign and kept a handful of others out of action.

"This past year was a disappointing one for us," said center Alex Bougaieff, the team's only senior. "We had eight freshmen and several key injuries, and you just can't control things like those."

The tournament did have at least one bright spot, as junior forward Erik Cooper played in his second game since missing 23 due to a broken foot.

The Owls had originally hoped Cooper would receive a medical redshirt like the one fellow junior Shawn Tyndell will receive following a similar injury that kept him out of all but two games.

But Cooper was forced to forfeit the opportunity because he already sat out a season after transferring to Rice from Loyola College in Maryland two years ago.

Cooper, who was expected to be one of the team's leaders in terms of both production and veteran guidance, saw his return as a positive.

"As a team leader, it was really frustrating not being able to contribute on the court," he said. "It felt good to get back in there these last couple of games, and we'll just be looking forward to next season."

Junior point guard Mike Wilks was glad to see Cooper return in time for the tournament.

"Erik is a great leader," Wilks said. "His coming back here gave us a big lift. He's very important, and we look forward to his being a great part of this team."

Head coach Willis Wilson also quickly pointed to the benefits of Cooper's return - and of the way the season transpired.

"We saw this game as a chance to play a nationally ranked team and improve," Wilson said. "We saw this as something we can really build upon in the coming year, and it gave our kids a boost of confidence."

However promising the future may be, it will be nearly impossible to forget the disappointments of the past year.

"It was frustrating to give your all, night in and night out, and continually come up short," Wilks said. "It was a building year, an emotional year."

Most of the building involved the development and maturity of the eight-member freshman class. As a result, next year the Owls will field a lineup that includes eight extremely experienced sophomores, a rarity in even today's college basketball world.

"We have a large freshman class," freshman forward Jay Christian said. "[Most] freshmen nationwide mostly saw no time or only garbage time. ... Our freshmen played 10 to 25 minutes a game. We can build upon that experience."

The only Owl who won't have a chance to build on the experience - at least not at Rice - was Bougaieff. Despite the less-than-storybook ending to a great career, Bougaieff also pointed to the bright future he envisions for the up-and-coming Owls.

"As the lone senior on the team, my job was just to help them along for the coming year," he said. "We've all been committed to keeping up our work ethic, even during the trying times. I think they'll be a tough contender in the WAC next year."

Bougaieff's basketball career, however, is not over. Rice's leading career shot-blocker is looking forward to a future that will hopefully include competitive basketball on the world's stage.

"I'd like to play for Canada in the Olympics this summer," Bougaieff said. "I was one of the last cuts at the tryouts last year. ... [And] now that the season is over, I can start to focus on playing professionally."

And from the cold wastelands of Canada, Bougaieff said he will look back at his alma mater in sunny Houston with a smile.

"My fans at Rice have been great," Bougaieff said. "I will miss the college atmosphere they bring."

Alex, the feeling will undoubtedly be mutual.

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