It wasn’t all that long ago that TCU Basketball was an afterthought. You need only go back a few months to find a time where the Frogs were among the, if not the, worst major conference program in the country. January was a cold and bleak time in Funky Town for Frog fans: football season was over and baseball seemed all too far away.
But all that has changed along with the calendar in 2017 - once the worst month of the year, January has brought new life, and wins, to the TCU campus as a whole.
Last March, the Frogs made a surprising move in bringing Jamie Dixon home, entrenching a favorite son atop the ruins of a once proud basketball program. There had been rumblings sure, and when the new Schollmaier Arena opened - one of the finest facilities in the country - the whispers grew louder. But actually prying Dixon from Pittsburg, where he had made 11 NCAA Tournaments in 14 years proved no certain task, and thus, when it finally happened, it sent ripples through the collegiate basketball community nationwide.
There isn’t a person associated with college basketball that didn’t think Dixon would immediately make TCU better. But when the bar was as low as it was, better didn’t really mean much. There was certainly not much talk of making an tourney run, at least in year one. Most pundits thought there would be marked improvement, but that the Frogs were at least a couple years, and a couple recruiting classes, away from being potential contenders. Well, Jamie Dixon had other ideas. Dixon went out and got Ryan Miller from a UNLV program that was in a bit of turmoil, and one of the best recruiters in the land was able to bring is former pledge, Jaylen Fisher, to Fort Worth. Desmond Bane was signed as well, and suddenly the Frogs had what they had been lacking - a true floor general and a dynamic scoring guard. Add in the versatile and experienced Alex Robinson, fresh off of a mandated redshirt year after transferring from A&M, and the return of do-everything big man Kenrich Williams, and TCU went from ‘meh’ to maybe(!) really fast.
As I write this, the Frogs have just finished an 0-3 week in conference play, with road losses to Texas Tech and Oklahoma State sandwiching a disappointing loss to a top-ten Baylor team that they had within their grasp for most of the evening. Normally, it’s hard to put down positive thoughts after a gut-wrenching loss, but it somehow seems easy in this moment. A lot of people will tell you that they don’t believe in moral victories, but I disagree. As someone who has been coaching for two decades plus, I have learned that the game isn’t always about winning. The goal is to always come out on top of course, but if that’s the only measure of success, you’re going to go home disappointed at some point, unless you’re the last team standing. And when you’re building a program from the ground up, you don’t measure achievement by the scoreboard alone - especially in year one. Was Tuesday night’s loss in Lubbock a ‘moral victory’? Certainly not. But Dixon’s guys overcame a big first half deficit, a large free throw disparity, and a hostile environment, and almost pulled off an improbable second-half comeback. If your team is on the uptick, they learn from those mistakes and it pays off in a big road win later in the season. Saturday, in front of the most enthusiastic and electric crowd I have personally ever witnessed at a TCU Basketball game, the Frogs trailed by only a couple possessions throughout the majority of the game, despite shooting an ice-cold 30% from the field and 25% from deep. They took the lead on more than one occasion, but were overpowered by the massive inside presence of the Bears, which forced Dixon to go big, handcuffing the offense down the stretch. It was a close game, the kind of back and forth affair that keeps a crowd interested and engaged, and as such, the sellout packed inside responded. It was LOUD, a loud that I don’t normally associate with the Frogs in the month of January. Even more impressive was the lead-up to the game; when I arrived shortly before 6pm (for a 7pm tip), there was a line of students snaking from the entrance all the way to the road. And apparently they had been there for hours, in the rain.
Student line at Fort Dixon is starting to take shape... love the passion our students have pic.twitter.com/WVg9Sg3xk4— Chris Del Conte (@_delconte) January 21, 2017
And all this has happened before Jamie Dixon’s first full year on campus.
It used to be that January was the worst month for Frog fans, but all that has changed, and continues to change. The Frogs welcome the most talented group of basketball commits in their history this summer, having already signed a pair of four stars studs and two intriguing three star talents, with more possibly on the way. They were in the hunt until the end with five star forward Jared Vanderbilt, along with Kentucky and Duke, before the Texas product chose the Wildcats. But it likely won’t be long before a one and done talent chooses to take his talents to TCU, and potentially raises the program to heights unseen.
Now, January is something to anticipate, for matchups with some of the best basketball teams in the country in the deepest conference in the land (don’t at me, ACC fans). It’s no longer a placeholder for baseball or a time to think only of the whims of 18 year football players. January is something to look forward to, as it brings the chance to huddle in the rain hoping to crowd into the student section, getting chills when Jamie Dixon’s face comes up at the end of the pregame hype video while packed in with a couple thousand of your dearest friends and fiercest rivals, and high five-ing everyone within reach after a thunderous Vlad dunk or another impossible Fish drive and dish. This young team is going to grow up right before our very eyes, and while they’ll break our hearts a bit this season, isn’t it kind of nice for basketball losses to hurt a little?
I love this TCU team. I love the way they play, how they share the ball with an unselfishness you just don’t see in the AAU generation of basketball players, the way they crash the boards with abandon and dive for EVERY SINGLE loose ball. I love the way Kenrich Williams plays - a throwback guy who epitomizes everything you want in a player as a coach and everything you want in a teammate as a player - the kind of kid who refuses to be outworked. Vlad has been a revelation; he does things with the ball that no seven footer should do, while showing a deft touch on offense and an instinct for big blocks on D. The trio of guards - freshmen Jaylen Fisher and Desmond Bane and sophomore Alex Robinson - are all wizards with their handles, able to navigate the big guys in the middle while contorting their bodies into impossible angles looking to squeeze off a shot or drop a dime to a cutting teammate. Senior leaders Brandon Parrish, Karviar Shepherd, Michael Williams, and Chris Washburn have been outstanding examples of humility, each willing to come off the bench if it gives their team a better chance to win, never pouting or showing any negativity despite the fact each is playing significantly fewer minutes than a season ago. JD Miller is one of the most dynamic athletes you will see, and while he is still truly figuring out how to play at this level, he’s good for at least one highlight play a night, and is an absolute menace on defense in the meantime. This is a really likable group of young men, on and off the court. They’re easy to root for and deserve our support.
Tomorrow, TCU returns home, to face off against a team that mirrors themselves in some ways - the Auburn Tigers. It’s part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge, and while it doesn’t carry the cache’ of Kentucky/Kansas, it’s a huge game for a reeling young team that is in desperate need of a hot-shooting night and a win. There’s no reason this non-conference game can’t have the same type of atmosphere as last week’s contest against Baylor, and thus, I implore you to get out to the game, pack the Scholly, and cheer your lungs out for this young men. They need it.
So, yes, dream of spring and those magical nights at Lupton. Sweat along with the rest of us through National Signing Day. Follow every off-season throw by Shawn Robinson and wait with baited breath for the spring football game. But don’t wish for time to pass faster, but instead, enjoy this ride. Because January isn’t for catching your breath any more.