TCU Desperately Needs a Spark to Prevent Season from Unraveling
Since Jamie Dixon arrived as head coach in 2016 to revive his alma mater’s basketball program, TCU seasons have become predictable.
In some ways, it’s not a bad thing.
In Dixon’s first season, the Horned Frogs won their first National Invitational Tournament (NIT). They followed that up in 2017-18 with the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years. TCU made another NIT semifinals appearance in 2019 and might have been an NCAA bubble team had the tournament happened in 2020.
Every season has started with a good non-conference record, including 12-0 in 2017-18. A 12-1 non-conference record in 2018-19 and a 9-4 record last year increased expectations again.
Once Big 12 play starts, however, wins become harder to find. The Horned Frogs’ best conference record came in 2017-18 at 9-9 followed by a pair of 7-11 seasons.
TCU came out firing again in 2020-21 with a 7-1 non-conference record, including a 73-55 win over SEC foe Texas A&M. Now that the Aggies have gone 2-4 into conference play, the win has lost some luster.
The non-conference loss to Providence, 79-70, highlighted the potential cracks in another promising start – most notably the 19 forced turnovers.
After a 2-4 start in the Big 12, TCU’s conference performance feels different from past years and not just because of COVID-19. The Horned Frogs are tied for the worst Big 12 start in the Dixon era following a three-game losing streak, have a conference-worst -5.4 turnover margin and have been plagued by inconsistent three-point shooting.
The previous 2-4 conference start turned into the NCAA Tournament run. That team returned all five starters from the NIT Championship team, including two All-Big 12 Honorees.
This year’s squad returns just two starters, junior guard RJ Nembhard and junior center Kevin Samuel, with three underclassmen filling the other starting roles.
Nembhard has emerged as TCU’s go-to playmaker after the departure of NBA first-round draft pick Desmond Bane. Nembhard’s 17.5 points per game is second in the Big 12 behind projected top NBA pick, Cade Cunningham at Oklahoma State.
Samuel’s 9.6 points and 9.3 rebounds provides a solid inside presence in the paint.
Freshman guard Mike Miles is the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.3 points per game, but still has room to grow. He went 0-for-8 against Kansas, and then exploded for 17 points against Baylor just days later.
Youth and inexperience at the Division I level can lead to inconsistent play. Unfortunately for TCU, the Big 12 has a deep vault of top-25 caliber teams that can cash in on things like turnovers and inconsistent three-point shooting.
During the season series against Oklahoma, the Horned Frogs looked like two different teams. TCU had a season-low eight turnovers and shot 35.7% (10-of-28) from three in an 82-78 loss. The rematch turned into an 82-46 route with the Horned Frogs making a season-low 21% (4-of-19) from three and committing 16 turnovers.
The Horned Frogs had a chance against Baylor with a one-point halftime lead, but 22 turnovers turned it into a 67-49 loss.
Even a 77-76 win over Oklahoma State, when the Horned Frogs shot a season-best 47.1% (8-of-17) from the three-point line, almost fell apart due to 20 turnovers.
The only Big 12 game TCU has won while shooting poorly (3-of-13)?
Kansas State when the Horned Frogs needed 18 free throws to avoid the No. 9 spot in the Big 12.
Inconsistent three-point shooting has been an issue all season. During non-conference play, the Horned Frogs shot 27% or worse against Prairie View A&M, Liberty, Houston Baptist and Northwestern State. Advantages in other areas, including rebounding and free throws attempts, allowed TCU to emerge unscathed.
Hiding the inconsistencies against Big 12 competition has proven to be much harder.
While other things have cost TCU games, including a -21-rebounding margin in a 93-64 loss to Kansas, inconsistent three-point shooting and turnovers remain a theme.
If TCU isn’t careful, the season could get out of hand. The Horned Frogs have yet to play No. 5 Texas, No. 12 Texas Tech, and No. 14 West Virginia, COVID-19 permitting.
COVID-19 protocols have postponed the Horned Frogs next two games against Texas Tech and Texas. TCU is scheduled to be back on the court January 26.
And who do the Horned Frogs get?
No. 9 Kansas at Allen Field House.
Oklahoma State, Iowa State, and No. 2 Baylor follow Kansas, which provides some winnable games. However, the Cowboys have started to receive Top-25 votes since that first meeting.
It’s teams like Oklahoma State, though, that TCU needs to beat consistently to continue growing as a team and show the program is still headed down a familiar track.