When fourth-year coach Ben Braun led Rice to 19 victories and its best Conference USA record since joining the league in 2005 last season, it appeared the Owls had emerged as a program on the rise.
Only six months later, however, the optimism has soured.
Five players transferred to other schools this offseason and a sixth left early to pursue a pro career in his home country in Lebanon. The latest to leave is Iranian forward Arsalan Kazemi, a second-team all-Conference USA selection last season who announced Monday he intends to transfer to a high-major program for his senior season after averaging a double-double as a junior.
The exodus leaves Rice with a threadbare roster featuring only two rotation players from last year's breakout season. Senior Tamir Jackson reaffirmed his commitment to Rice on Twitter on Monday night, but even the return of a starting combo guard still leaves the team with only one player who produced more than 3.7 points a game last season.
Why would six players leave a program that appeared to be on the rise after last season's postseason appearance in the CIT Tournament? At this point, the answer to that question remains murky.
Reserve forward David Chadwick's mother told Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday morning that her son transferred to Valparaiso for his final two years of college in hopes he might earn more playing time there. Messages left for the parents or coaches of three other former Rice players were not immediately returned.
The most plausible theory for the tumult at Rice is Braun's decision not to renew the contract of assistant coach Marco Morcos may have played a role.
Morcos played a key role in the recruitment of the players from last year's freshman class that have left, including forward Jarelle Reischel (Rhode Island), point guard Dylan Ennis (Villanova) and forward Ahmad Ibrahim (turned pro). He also helped land 7-foot-2 center Omar Oraby, a fellow Egyptian who announced he will transfer to USC last week.
Oraby and Kazemi were roommates at Rice, which may explain the unusually late timing of Kazemi's departure. Both CBSSports.com and the Houston Chronicle reported Monday that he has asked to be released to six high-major programs: Kentucky, Texas, Ohio State, Florida, Cincinnati and Oregon.
It will be interesting to see if Kazemi's skill set will translate to the high-major level where he will have to battle against taller, stronger players on a more regular basis. Meanwhile, his former school will rebuild and wonder what might have been had it been able to keep its talented core together.
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