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Comparing like with like: Is it time for Trent Johnson to go?

With TCU's third last place finish in four years looming on the horizon, it's time to ask if it's time to move on from Trent Johnson. We look at teams in similar situations to determine what TCU's expectations should be and if Coach Johnson is meeting them.

I know, Coach, I had to watch that basketball game too.
I know, Coach, I had to watch that basketball game too.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knew it wasn't going to be an easy job, but when former LSU, Stanford, and Nevada coach, Trent Johnson, took the stage, it was easy to feel that we had the right man for the job.  Here was a coach that had made the NCAA tournament at each of his previous coaching jobs- heck, he'd won the conference coach of the year award at each of his previous coaching jobs, and he was coming in to help TCU transition from the MWC to the Big 12.  His predecessor, Jim Christian, had preached patience until he finally got his senior laden team that managed two wins over top 25 teams. That team unfortunately topped out with a CBI invite, which ended in a blowout loss in the second round- not exactly what we'd hoped for after four seasons of being told to wait for results.  Coach Christian departed for Ohio and is now busy running Boston College into the ground, combining with BC football to give the Eagles a good shot at the first winless conference seasons in the P5 since 1976-1977.  Trent Johnson was coming into a tough situation with a young team that was transferring to possibly the toughest basketball conference in the nation, so we all knew it was going to be bad at first.

It... wasn't that bad, though.  The Frogs finished last in the Big 12, but played hard in every game and pulled off two wins over NCAA tournament teams- one being a win over #5 Kansas that may be statistically the biggest upset in college basketball history.  It was a rough season, but the way the Frogs played gave you hope that as the team matured and gelled that they could build on it next season.  Then next season came... and it was absolutely miserable.  After building up some belief and momentum with a 9-3 record in non-conference, the Frogs hit the Big 12 schedule like a flaming sack of crap. They were routinely blown out and were within single digits at the end of four games, finishing 0-18 in conference play.  It was safe to say that the momentum was gone.

Finally, the Frogs had a season of (relative) health and a fairly upper classmen heavy lineup and we got to see what TJ was capable of- the Frogs made an appearance in the top 25 for the first time in many years, thanks to a spotless non-conference record and again, seemed to have momentum heading into Big 12 play.  It... didn't go well.  While the Frogs managed to finish out of the Big 12 basement for the first time, it was only one game clear of last place Texas Tech, and four games back of the three teams that tied for sixth.  TCU had some things to feel good about, but there certainly was no belief that the program was building to anything special.

Then came this season, which has proven intensely frustrating.  Barring a miracle upset and Oklahoma State losing out, the Frogs will finish at the bottom of the Big 12 standings for the third time.  What's worse, is that the consistent effort we always saw from the Frogs in previous seasons appears to have slowly drained away as the season has worn on.  What's worse is that the lone team that finished below the Frogs last year has turned things around to being a likely bet to make the NCAA tourney, showing that the turnaround is possible, it's just not happening for us.  Is it fair to start calling for coach Johnson's head now?  Let's have a look at how some other teams that made a move up in conference difficulty have faired.

The Utah Utes are generally a great point of comparison for us, as they came from the same conference we did, finished with about the same record in their last season in the MWC as we did in ours (Utah had six conference wins to TCU's seen) and moved up to a conference that is very similar in most respects.  They even hired a new coach the first year of the transition, making the comparison about as perfect as you could hope for.  In their first year in the new conference, the Utes finished 11th in the Pac 12, just ahead of pathetic USC- but had three conference wins, which again, equates well with TCU's two in their first Big 12 season.  In their second year, the Utes still struggled, but managed further progress to finish 10th in the conference with five conference wins- significantly better than TCU's second year and, in fact, better than TCU's best year in the Big 12.  In their third year of Pac 12 play, the Utes went .500 in conference play, finishing 8th and made the NIT, well above TCU's 9th place finish in the 10 team Big 12 in their like season.  In their fourth season in the Pac 12, the Utes finished third in the conference and made the NCAA tournament, while the Frogs finished in last place in the Big 12 again.  So... the Utes definitely had a better time in their transition, and it's certainly possible for a team to make a leap up in competition and continue to develop, but the Big 12 is a good deal better than the Pac 12 at present, so it's harder for teams to move up- let's see if there are other comparisons we can use.

We, of course, like to consider ourselves vastly superior to the SMU Mustangs, but the ponies did make a sizable move up in competition and ended up hiring a basketball coach at the same time we did, so the comparison is quite apt.  The Mustangs finished with five conference wins in CUSA in their last season there before making the move up in competition to the AAC, so again, fairly similar to TCU's situation when making the move to the Big 12.  Instead of struggling like TCU or Utah, though, the Mustangs hit the ground running, going 12-6 in their new conference and qualifying for the NIT- while notching two wins over eventual national champion UConn.  In their second year in the conference, SMU won the league's regular season and tournament titles to advance to the NCAA tournament.  Now, how the Mustangs did it is, of course, the typical SMU way, but it's impossible to say that they didn't leave us in the dust comparatively.  That's two coaches that did significantly better in their transition to new, tougher conferences than TJ is presently doing, but it's still not a perfect comparison- Utah was good a lot more recently than TCU had been, and SMU was cheating.  A better comparison may be the most distasteful one of all.

In 2003, Baylor's basketball team was nuked almost off the face of the earth, receiving the harshest NCAA penalties issued since the death penalty against the SMU football team.  As a result, their new coach, Scott Drew, was starting from a situation much like TCU's- dealing with a young team in an extremely tough conference (ours, no less) and was probably much worse off talent-wise.  Recruiting to the MWC is one thing, recruiting when your pitch is "We won't let your son get killed or become a murderer like those kids last year" is not fun, to say the least.  Much like TCU, Baylor struggled in its first years under Drew, finishing either 11th or 12th in each of its first four years.  The very next year, though, Baylor made the NCAA tournament and started their current run of (infuriatingly) consistently good play.  Now, various allegations have been made about Drew's recruiting practices, but in four years he's accomplished much the same as TJ had.  What all does this mean, then?

Frankly, it doesn't look good for Johnson- two of the three coaches I analyzed made significantly stronger gains in their seasons after conference transitions than TCU has, and the other member still had the ace up his sleeve of the #7 ranked recruiting class in the nation that was just beginning to develop.  Coach Johnson has not had results to build around, either on the court or on the recruiting trail, and it's starting to look like the team has quit on him.  Giving him one more year to attempt to turn things around may not be the worst idea, but there's simply nothing in either the way the team has played this year or in comparing coaches in similar situations to make me think that the results will be anything other than another last place finish for the Frogs.

It's time to move on.