Surprising to many, Rice University has made it into the final six schools for the Daily Campus’ Big 12 mock expansion. An academic powerhouse but athletic weakling, Rice appears to be on the outside looking in.
Any talk of what Rice can bring to the Big 12 starts and likely ends with academics. Ranked No. 15 in the country by US News & World Report, the private school based in Houston has long been known for its excellent academics. That would be quite a refresher for the Big 12, who while not terrible, hardly has a scholarly reputation. The school has also had a traditionally strong baseball program, producing many pros including current MLB players Anthony Rendon of the Nationals and Brock Holt of the Red Sox.
The Owls are quite weak in other sports, but can point to the most recent Big 12 addition, TCU, as a sign of hope. TCU was a school outside of the power five conferences that athletically, was not strong across the board either. Their basketball program was weak. However, since joining the Big 12, the clout of the conference has helped them begin to turn around. This past summer, they lured successful Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon to take over the men’s basketball program and scored their first ever ESPN 100 recruit in Jaylen Fisher. Rice would argue that with the assets and the Big 12 brand behind them, it can ignite the same level of turnaround in several of their programs.
Another positive that Rice potentially brings, which you won’t hear mentioned publicly, is that it could be the conference punching bag. Once a year, Alabama head coach Nick Saban wakes up on a Sunday, realizes it’s Vanderbilt week and goes back to sleep. I’m sure Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops does the same. Rice’s athletic weakness could actually be an asset, as they’re not a major recruiting threat to current members, due to their strict admissions, and the Big 12 schools can pick up a free win every season while boosting the conference’s academic reputation.
Several of Rice’s strengths double as their weaknesses. Let’s be clear: the No. 1 factor in Big 12 expansion is football. Rice is not considered to be strong at football, although they did have a stretch of three straight bowls from 2012 to 2014, but they have been traditionally weak. Their program is nowhere near where the rest of the Big 12, not just in talent, but also in facilities, tradition and fan support.
A distant second in conference expansion is basketball, and Rice isn’t any better when it comes to hoops. The Owls haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1970. They are nowhere near the level TCU was at when they were accepted as members. The Horned Frogs had been annual powerhouses in college football for several years before they were chosen. They also were strong in other sports, and likely had an even better baseball program then the Owls.
It will be a much steeper climb for Rice to get to a competent level as well. Strict admissions dictate how coaches can recruit, and they are simply unable to land the most elite athletes. While Big 12 might like an easy win here and there, the conference is expanding because many predict that if it doesn’t, it will get left behind other elite college athletics. The Big 12 is expanding to become a more powerful conference, and Rice sends them in the opposite direction. Due to their immense deficiencies, it is hard to imagine that it can be an asset for the Big 12 and that is why it is not among what many analysts consider popular candidates.
Matt Barresi is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.