The Rice Owls have arrived — and they’d like to stick around.
A perfect 16-0 in conference play was just part of an incredible run for Rice in 2018-19, one that included winning 28 of their last 30 games after dropping their first two on the road to ranked teams.
The Owls’ season was highlighted by a series of program firsts that included being ranked themselves, winning the Conference USA regular-season title (and then, the tournament title) and the first winning streak of more than 12 games (try 21 heading into the NCAA Tournament). Their undefeated C-USA season was another first for the program, and winning the C-USA tournament as an undefeated team was a conference first.
With so many firsts taken care of last season, how much higher can the Owls fly this season? Plenty, it turns out — here’s what to look forward to:
Rice’s stars come out to play
The youngest sister of the Los Angeles Sparks’ Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, redshirt senior Erica Ogwumike racked up a bevy of C-USA honors last season and is one of four returning starters this season. As the team’s leading scorer and rebounder (yes, at 5-foot-9, she averaged 10.5 boards per game), Ogwumike is a player that opposing teams don’t want to face — she’s simply everywhere.
For her efforts, Ogwumike was named C-USA Player of the Year last season, the first Owl to ever receive that honor. She was then named the C-USA Female Athlete of the Year in June. It’s no surprise, then, that she’ll start this season on the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award watch list, which contains 20 of the nation’s best shooting guards.
Despite playing just 24 games due to an injury suffered right before the beginning of last season, redshirt junior Nancy Mulkey quickly established herself as a player who knows exactly how to use her 6-foot-9 frame. In that short time, she became the nation’s leading blocker at nearly four per game and shattered the Rice single-season blocks record with 94. On the offensive end, she averaged 13.9 points per game on 55.2 percent shooting.
Having Mulkey for the whole season is a luxury that Rice can ill afford to waste. It’s all but assured that she’ll pick up right where she left off, her C-USA Defensive Player of the Year honor bearing testament to her immediate impact last season. She’s also on the preseason Lisa Leslie Award watch list, which recognizes the nation’s best center — and what’s more center-like than notching four blocks a game?
Honorable mention: Nicole Iademarco and Olivia Ogwumike
They may not be on the court anymore, but 2019 grads Nicole Iademarco and Olivia Ogwumike (yes, another Ogwumike sister) are both on the coaching staff as graduate assistants this season.
Key non-conference games
Texas A&M — November 17
After dropping the first game of the season to the Aggies last season, the Owls will be eager to welcome them to Houston for another early-season meeting. Rice has beaten the Aggies just once ever, in 2006, but the addition of Mulkey to the starting five should shake things up.
Oklahoma State — November 23
Look, it seems a little unfair that the Owls have only ever played the Cowgirls on the road. But with just one player left from the 2016-17 squad that last traveled to Stillwater — Kendall Ellig — the fresh perspective on this matchup will be welcome.
Puerto Rico Classic — December 21 and 22
The Owls face two ACC opponents in the holiday tournament: Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Both were picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference, but with the ACC’s depth, that doesn’t mean they won’t pose a challenge. This tournament also marks the first time that Rice has played regular-season games away from the continental United States.