We always knew that rebuilding TCU's basketball program was not for the faint of heart. TCU basketball has never really been good. They've made the NCAA tournament seven times, most recently in 1998, and have a record of 5-7 in the dance. They have one Elite Eight appearance in school history (1968), the farthest they've ever advanced.
So when Trent Johnson took the TCU job, moving from LSU to do so, we knew we weren't going to see immediate results. TCU had been so bad for so long, that no matter what coach was hired (outside of maybe Larry Brown, which I'll get to in a minute), this was going to be a long rebuilding process.
In the ten seasons prior to Johnson's hiring, TCU had two winning seasons in 2005-06 and 2011-12. The 2005-06 season saw TCU go 19-13, resulting in an NIT bid. They would win three games, making it to the quarterfinals, before losing 85-73 to Maryland.
In 2011-12 the Frogs went 17-14, earning an invitation to the pay-your-way College Basketball Invitational. After a first-round win over Milwaukee, TCU headed to Corvallis, OR, where they were thumped by Oregon State 101-81.
In both of those seasons TCU went .500 in conference play, by far their best showing conferences in that time frame. Over those ten seasons TCU averaged 13.2 wins/year, and 4.8 conference wins/year.
All that to say is this: Trent Johnson wasn't coming into a program that had been winning, or had any expectations of winning immediately upon his arrival.
And yet, I find myself losing the ability to make excuses for the continued lack of success TCU basketball is having, now that we're in year four of Johnson's tenure.
The Frogs are 49-72 since joining the Big 12 in 2012, the same season they hired Johnson, and an abysmal 8-58 in Big 12 play (9-61 if we include the Big 12 tournament). And while there have been a few highlight moments, like the win over Kansas, a win over Oklahoma, a win over Texas, another CBI invitation, etc., the majority of these four seasons have been an exercise in managing frustrations and tempering expectations.
TCU's 61 Big 12 losses have come by an average of 15.6 points per game. They have more losses by 20+ points (19) than they have losses by less than 10 points (18).
Yes, 33 of those losses came to teams that were ranked in the Top 25 at the time of the game, but the average doesn't change much when you split ranked losses vs. unranked losses (15.63 vs. 15.57).
The struggles go well beyond a simple margin of defeat statistic, though. TCU has not been able to find an offensive identity in the four seasons under Johnson, constantly struggling to produce despite having a handful of good shooters and some decent post players. They have consistently been forced to slow the tempo, burn shot clock, and shorten games, trying to turn their lackluster offense into a time-suck that assists them defensively. This season the Frogs are averaging 66.9 points per game, which puts TCU right around 300th in the country.
It's easy for teams to game plan for TCU's offense. Drop into a zone and make the guards beat you. Press at half court, and force the Frogs to move the ball. Let TCU make mistakes, then capitalize.
Defensively TCU has been pretty decent under Trent Johnson, but this season that has fallen off as the Frogs are 116th in the country, giving up about 70 points per contest.
Ultimately though, this team is stuck in a perennial "TCU football 2013" cycle, with a not-as-good defense. The defense can keep them in it for a while, but eventually the offensive blemishes and rebounding deficiencies counter any positive efforts, resulting in a loss.
Certainly some of this is talent-based, and Johnson is slowly improving the talent pool on TCU's roster. On the roster he assumed in 2012-13, there were six players rated as 3-stars coming out of high school, one rated as a 2-star, and seven that weren't rated at all.
Entering the 2015-16 season, Johnson has a roster that includes three 4-star recruits, six 3-star recruits, and two 2-star recruits. He's convinced 4-star recruit and younger brother of Brandon Parrish, Josh Parrish, to join the ranks next season. So it's easy to look at recruiting and see that Johnson has made great strides. Plus, now that the new facilities are complete, he's got a pristine new stadium, training rooms, lounge, etc. to use to his recruiting advantage. I can guarantee that stuff will be attractive to recruits, but whether or not it's enough to get them in the door is yet to be seen.
At some point, though, that perceived increase in talent (we can talk about the reliability of rankings all day) needs to result in an increase in competitiveness and wins. There are two questions about this talent, though. The development of talent, regardless of high school rankings, falls directly to the coaching staff, and questions can be raised about whether or not this coaching staff, led by Johnson, has been able to do that. Especially when you consider that Johnson is known for coaching up big men.
Take Karviar Shepherd, example. Shepherd was a 4-star recruit coming out of high school, rated as the No. 7 center in the country by Rivals. He turned down scholarship offers from Kansas, UCLA, Baylor, Oklahoma, and a handful of others to play for the Frogs, and as a freshman, averaged 9.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game. He shot 40% from the floor and 71% from the free throw line. All things pointed to Shepherd being a dominant center in the years to come. However, during his sophomore campaign he averaged just 6.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, while playing about seven minutes less per game. This season Shepherd has been battling injuries, and is averaging 8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.
Devonta Abron's shooting percentage has fallen from 53% in his first season at TCU, to just 46.3% this season. Despite averaging more points per game than last season, Chris Washburn is shooting just 39% from the floor this season, compared to 48.1% from the floor in 2014-15. It should also be noted that Abron and Washburn began their college careers elsewhere, and transferred in to TCU. The same can be said for some of TCU's other top players over the past few seasons, including Malique Trent, Trey Zeigler, and Kenrich Williams.
It's been hard to watch TCU basketball for a long, long, time now, and while Trent Johnson has no doubt been working hard to improve the Frogs' situation, it isn't happening quickly enough.
Maybe the new facilities will help encourage more talent to come through the doors. Maybe the Frogs go on an unexpected run to finish off this season. Maybe the return of an injured Kenrich Williams and addition of Texas A&M transfer Alex Robinson will spark the Frogs. It could happen.
But then again, we said the same thing about Amric Fields coming back, and Kyan Anderson another year older, just two seasons ago.
I'm not advocating for quitting on the Frogs, by any means. I'm not even advocating for giving up on Trent Johnson yet, but his seat has to be getting warm. If the 2016-17 season doesn't provide different results, the questions will get louder, and the pressure to make a change greater.