Rice's Max Fiedler Is Loving It
Quincy Olivari doesn’t remember much about his first visit at Rice University with his teammate Max Fiedler, other than how quiet he was.
For their first season, not much stood out about the shy Fiedler except for his busted AND1 slides.
“He wore those AND1 slides until the little flop on the top of the foot came off,” Olivari said. “And they’re only $5. I remember, the team our freshman year said, ‘We will give you some AND1 slides if you don’t want to wear the free Adidas slides you get from the team.’”
Fiedler never responded. In fact Fiedler rarely said much.
That’s why, when Fiedler spoke up at a seniors-led leadership meeting following Rice’s second-straight blowout loss to start the 2022-2023 season and openly expressed his love for the game, Olivari was shocked.
Olivari knew Fielder loved the academic rigors of Rice. And surfing. And skateboarding. And those AND1 slides.
And, as of that moment - basketball as well.
“I really do care about basketball,” Fiedler said. “I know it might not seem like it, but I really do care, I really do love you guys. I love this team and I want us to win and do something special. So, I really do care and I will do my best to show it.”
Fiedler’s been different ever since. The big man now ranks second in the country in effective field goal percentage, per KenPom. But more than his on-the-court impact, Fiedler’s leadership for the Owls has been revolutionary.
“I was like damn, alright,” Olivari said. “For him to say that, it was almost like he was directing it to me, but didn’t. It definitely made me look at him differently. He doesn’t know that. Nobody knows that, but that helped my connection with him.”
After a junior year hindered by injuries, his senior season was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be the cumulation of over three years of hard work between him, Olivari and Travis Evee — the three highly touted prospects who walked on campus in the fall of 2019 determined to make a permanent impact on the Owls program.
“We were hoping that we were going to get back on track where we left off last year, pre-injury,” Fiedler said. “We were really excited. People were really ready to go. I thought we had a good preseason and we were ready to play.”
Rice opened the season with a 106-67 loss at Pepperdine. The almost 40-point loss was especially shocking considering the Owls beat Pepperdine at home just a season before.
“We were like, ‘O.K., what the… what’s going on here,” Fiedler said. “This is a team we beat last year, and we think we were supposed to be better than we were last year.”
The team flushed the loss and tried to move on. Less than a week later, the Owls lost by 35 points on the road at Middle Tennessee, another team that Rice had previously defeated at home last season.
Some of the older guys on the team got together, hosting a seniors-only meeting among the players. They spoke for nearly an hour in the team’s locker room, trying to figure out what the heck was going on and how to “right the ship.”
“Two 40-point losses, it’s hard to move on after that,” Fiedler said. “We all came together and we said, ‘If we want to do anything this year, we’ve got to set the tone here and try to really pick up this leadership aspect of the game here.’”
Being a leader, even for Fiedler in his senior year, is easier said than done.
You see, Fiedler doesn’t talk much. It hasn’t exactly been his “forte going back." Olivari — who Rice coach Scott Pera described as being “polar opposite” to Fiedler — said that if Fiedler spoke, “he probably would say three words.”
“I’ve been individually, really trying to (be more vocal),” Fiedler said. “And that’s really trying to show and make an effort that I’m giving it all I’ve got when I’m out there. Even when things aren’t going well, I’m trying to move on. I’m trying to stay optimistic.”
Fiedler said all the “older guys” on the team have been “good at that.” Him? Well, not so much.
Staying optimistic has been a long road for Fiedler. Really, he didn’t even think he could play in college until his junior year, and even then, it seemed like a fleeting goal.
As a sophomore at Melbourne High School in Florida, Fiedler’s only basketball goal — and he would tell you, he’s not one to set goals — was to become a starter.
Fiedler credits the summer before his junior year, a time of growth for his game on the court and mentally, for his breakout junior season.
“I got a lot better, but I think more than anything, I got a lot more confident in myself,” Fiedler said.
There was no secret sauce. No Steph Curry two-ball drills. This wasn’t a "Hey, make 500 shots in a row before you can leave the gym."
Rather, Fiedler credits a mentality shift spawned by assistant coach Mike Gaudy.
It’s easy to see why Fiedler clicked well with Gaudy. Gaudy garnered the respect of Fiedler with his resume of state championships as a player, but also his chill, surfer dude aesthetic. Gaudy, much like Fiedler, knew how to compartmentalize. He’d kick your ass in the gym, and then go back to his home on the coast to enjoy some much-deserved R&R.
Gaudy was there to show Fiedler that his idea of giving 100 percent wasn’t 100 percent. Suddenly, defensive slide drills became an intense physical and vocal exercise rather than a simple shuffling of the feet.
“He’d be yelling at me, ‘Talk! Talk! Talk!,” Fiedler said. “And I would be like, ‘Why? What am I going to say?’ I just remember that instance and I often think back about that, because now (in college), you’ve got to talk all the time, non-stop.”
Even after earning a starting role as a junior, after averaging nearly 22 points and 15 assists his senior year, even after three seasons at Rice, Fiedler has found himself struggling with some of the same issues as a senior in college.
You see, Fiedler, to put it lightly, is a perfectionist. He has a 3.9 cumulative GPA at Rice — a U.S. News top-15 college — as a student-athlete studying mathematical economic analysis. Reed Myers, a teammate of Fiedler who roomed with him during their freshman and junior years, said Fiedler “wasn’t a typical college freshman at all.”
As freshman roommates, Myers and Fiedler went together from class to weightlifting sessions and then practice. From there, Myers watched as Fiedler went to the team’s academic center, straight to dinner and then back to the center, the library or a study space. He was shocked to find that Fiedler was equally regimented in his sleep schedule, as he was always in bed and asleep by 10 p.m.
“He was always continuously working diligently towards his classes,” Myers said. “I was like, wow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone work so hard at their schoolwork as he did.”
Basketball, however, is a game of failures. A player, no matter how efficient they are, is bound to miss a shot or turn the ball over during the course of a practice or game. That’s something that Pera said Fiedler has struggled with since he first stepped foot on campus.
“We’ve had to help him overcome that it’s O.K. to fail,” Pera said.
Olivari said that, in the past, if Fiedler made a bad pass, he may check out of the rest of practice. Myers recalls many hard conversations between him and Fiedler in their dorm room as Fiedler vented about his on-court frustrations.
As for Pera and Fiedler, the two have had many hard conversations over the years — perhaps none more intense than their conversation after Rice’s loss to Middle Tennessee.
Aside from the players-only meeting, Pera and Fiedler had a “very, very long talk” themselves about coping, perfectionism and maturity in Pera’s office. Pera and Fiedler were both tight-lipped on the details, but Pera described the conversation as “intense.”
“It was emotional,” Pera said. “It was hard for him to hear. It was hard for me to try and express my points because I knew it would be hard for him to hear. But look, he’s also a senior, not a freshman. We’ve had hard conversations before. He took it well. We both left there feeling better about the conversation and what I expect of him.”
Pera said it was a credit to Fiedler to admit his own faults and accept criticism so openly.
Pera demanded a change. He didn’t expect Fiedler to flip a switch overnight and suddenly morph into a different player and a different leader. Pera just wanted day-by-day, incremental change. He wanted Fiedler to be a more vocal leader and a more adaptable, next-play-oriented player and Fiedler delivered.
Whether it’s in the huddles, in the locker room, pregame and post-game, Fiedler has spoken up this year.
“I’ve encouraged him to do so because I told him how it’s going to help him in life, not just in basketball,” Pera said. “Being able to communicate with your wife, your kids, your coworkers, in a leadership position. That resonates with him — life. Like real life really resonates with him. And when he saw it working, like his teammates really listening, I think it gave him the freedom to really say, ‘O.K., Coach is right, I’m going to do more than this.’”
Pera, Olivari and Myers all agree — Fiedler is playing the best basketball of his life right now.
Since the Middle Tennessee loss, and the subsequent meetings, he’s balling — leading Rice to capture wins in 10 of its next 12 games. The two losses during that stretch came in overtime against Louisiana Tech and No. 8 Texas.
Although Fiedler ranks third on the team in points per game, behind Olivari and Travis, his efficiency numbers are off the charts. He ranks No. 2 in the nation in effective field goal percentage and top-5 in total shooting percentage, per KenPom.
Fielder’s heralded by his teammates and coaches compare him to Nikola Jokic, an NBA MVP known for his passing prowess. Fiedler modestly accepts this comparison, joking that in one of his first showcase tournaments, he was forced to play point guard because of roster limitations.
In many ways, jokes aside, he serves as Rice’s point guard. Look no further than his 11-assist performance against UTSA in January, in which he recorded the second triple-double in school history. Pera said that once he saw some of the things Fiedler could do, he changed the Owls’ entire offense because of him.
“Look, in my 30-plus years of coaching, he’s the most unique player I’ve ever coached,” Pera said. “So we changed how we do things based on his skill set and it has done nothing but benefit our team, our program, and the four other players that play with him because he’s the best-passing big man I’d ever coached. I’d argue he’s the best-passing big man in the country and I’d dare anybody to show me somebody that’s better. I’d argue it.”
Fiedler leads Conference USA in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. Despite being a center, he averages five assists per game and has racked up over 130 so far this season.
“It’s been so fun for me because he’s pushed me to be better and to find new ways to keep getting and creating things with this offense because of this unique kid we have. And that’s been really, really fun. He probably doesn’t even know how much fun I’ve had doing it.”
Fiedler’s left behind his shaky confidence. He’s over the days of being the quiet guy in the locker room. Heck, he’s even done with those busted AND1 slides.
Max Fiedler, in spite of his near-perfect shooting percentage, isn’t perfect. And he’s learning to accept that.
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