While the Rice men’s basketball team suffered through a 5-26 season, three of the six players who transferred out of the program will be at NCAA Tournament venues Thursday and Friday.
After citing alleged racial discrimination at Rice, Arsalan Kazemi is completing a triumphant season at Oregon where he quickly won over the fan base and helped Oregon win the Pac-12 Tournament title Saturday. The first Iranian-born college basketball player and his teammates face Oklahoma State at 3:40 p.m. CST Thursday in San Jose.
The new teams of two other former Rice players made the Big Dance, though they can’t play because of transfer rules. Dylan Ennis will be on the bench as Villanova takes on UNC in Kansas City Friday while David Chadwick’s No. 14 seeded Valparaiso will try to upset Michigan State in Auburn Hills, Mich. Thursday.
Kazemi, Ennis and Chadwick make up just half of the players who bolted Rice prior to the start of the 2012-2013 season. Omar Oraby left for USC, Jarelle Reischel departed to Rhode Island and Ahmad Ibrahim decided to turn professional and play overseas.
Together with other returnees Tamir Jackson and Julian DeBose, Rice was expected to have a legitimate shot at its first NCAA Tournament since 1970. Instead the Owls won just one conference game and finished without a victory away from home.
The last two players to leave – Kazemi and Oraby – were ruled eligible to play right away by the NCAA while Ennis, Chadwick and Reischel had to sit out this season.
In waivers to the NCAA, Kazemi and Oraby cited racial discrimination as their reason for leaving. Sources told CBSSports.com those allegations were made primarily against Rice athletic director Rick Greenspan.
Greenspan and Rice basketball coach Ben Braun strongly denied the allegations. Here’s an excerpt from the school-issued statement.
“The efforts by USC and Oregon to set aside NCAA rules have included unfounded claims of discrimination and, as a result, Rice opposed the granting of the waivers and will address the allegations of discrimination in appropriate forums.”
The 7-2 center Oraby from Egypt turned in a decent season for the Trojans, averaging six points and four rebounds a game for a 14-18 USC team.
Kazemi, a native of Esfahan, Iran, has been one of the most impactful transfers in all of college hoops, as Oregon soared to 26 wins and its first NCAA Tournament appearance in five years. The 6-7 senior forward averaged 9.3 points and 9.5 rebound per game. He leads the Ducks in field goal percentage (59 percent), free throws made (98), rebounds (305) and steals (66). In fact, the 66 steals is second most single season thefts in school history.
“It has been a great experience for me,” Kazemi said in a Monday story written by Jackson Long of the Daily Emerald. “I’m really glad I get to come here to Oregon, we have great fans. At the beginning I was kind of stressed out because I didn’t know what was going to happen with the waiver. As the time went by, this place got more comfortable and I really like my teammates and my coaches and we have great supporters.”
The fans have responded in kind. One ever brought an Iranian flag to an Oregon home game.
Kazemi has brought intangibles to the team writes Joseph Hoyt of Lane Today.
“Kazemi’s importance to this team goes way beyond the ten points he averages night in and night out. No.14 for the Ducks has consistently rebounded against taller Pac-12 opponents and has also brought a toughness in the paint which allows senior center Tony Woods to move around better and block shots. …His impact on the school and the success of the Ducks basketball team is undeniable. With his aggressive and tough playing style on the court, Kazemi has developed into one of the best rebounders and defenders in the nation. Off the court Kazemi has proven to be a fan favorite with his million-dollar smile and unordinary choice of facial hair.”