TCU Basketball, undefeated and ranked #15 in the recent AP Poll (no thanks to Seth Davis), began the 2017/2018 season as high as a team of their stature could; the Frogs held the NIT trophy with a conference tournament win over then #1 Kansas Jayhawks. In Madison Square Garden, the work of a quartet of humble seniors, the Believers, culminated in a take down of a man named Taco and running Josh Pastner’s Georgia Tech off the court to win TCU’s first basketball postseason title. Those seniors came into last year with a new coach and an understanding of where playing time would settle - namely, in the hands of younger players, players recruited by Jamie Dixon. Presented with the opportunity to pack it in, have a nice season, and fade into obscurity, these four men - Brandon Parrish, Karviar Shepard, Chris Washburn, and Michael Williams - decided to enshrine themselves in TCU history, and did just that.
Waxing poetic for these seniors serves to emphasize by contrast TCU’s bench situation for this current season. In lieu of a group of dedicated role players, Jame Dixon’s team has a couple of new to TCU veterans and two impact underclassmen, all vying to contribute. The gauntlet was evident - TCU’s task this season would be to maintain the heart and energy while increasing style of play. So far, it’s mostly worked.
TCU’s out of conference slate features wins over four top 100 teams*, two of those on neutral courts, and one of them at midnight, Fort Worth time. TCU has struggled with only two opponents - the first a bad New Mexico squad who’s hustle and defensive rebounding somehow outweighed a .200 3-point effort from the Lobos. The second struggle was with Nevada, the second-best opponent TCU has faced this season. Circumstantial adversity aside, (namely, playing a game when the team’s body clocks were mostly accustomed to sleep) TCU got ahead and stayed ahead, allowing the hyper-efficient Cody Marty to get his due and ramping up the offense to close out a win during the Wolfpack’s late rally.
The hallmark of the out of conference effort so far is not the six wins over potential tournament teams, but instead is one of those wins, a beatdown of SMU in the Scholly in early December, for the first time in five seasons. Similar to last year, optimism about the Horned Frogs hinged on this game. Their performance in winning the Emerald Classic suggested the validity of this team, the SMU win confirmed it. In this game, TCU had 7 players with an offensive rating higher than 110. TCU shot .500 from the three point line, and secured an absurd 65.6% of rebounds on SMU’s end of the court - 21 Defensive Rebounds to SMU’s 11. Not to mention that this performance came without TCU’s point guard, Alex Robinson.
These individual performances have set TCU in a position to secure an at-large NCAA tournament bid with a decent in-conference showing, with a top five seed line not out of the question with a couple of breaks (looking at the West Virginia game in the Scholly, specifically). Again, just typing that sentence feels odd. Beyond those individual performances, though, some greater trends warrant further inspection about the season as a whole.
First, let’s examine what the Frogs do well.
Offense: 12th in the nation, a 117.4 points per 100 possessions pace (1st in the Big 12)
Offense is the stronger half of the court for the Frogs, standard for a Jamie Dixon team. JD’s teams have finished the season in the top 30 ten times in his career.
- This is driven mostly by stellar shooting - the Frogs rank second in effective shooting percentage, nearly eleven percentage points higher than the national average, and their 43.1% three-point shooting is 8th in the country.
- Often, a bout of three-point shooting success might warn of future regression, especially if it is married to a low two-point percentage. In this case, the Frogs are 10th in 2 point shootings, one of two teams (Va Tech) in the top ten in both 3pt and 2pt shooting.
- Assist Percentage is 24th in the nation, reflective of both TCU’s unselfishness and ability to score at multiple positions.
Defense: 50th in the nation, 97.6 ppp. (8th in the Big 12)
Defense is where the Frogs struggle. They play defense at an elite level, but still far behind the majority of the conference.
- Rebounding: On defense, TCU allows 22.2% of rebound opportunities to go to the opposing teams. That is good for 8th in the nation, and reflective of a team attitude towards securing the ball. Dean Oliver celebrates offensive rebounding as the second most important component of winning basketball, and TCU excels in this category.
- The Frogs are 55th in the nation in steals, a hallmark of their defensive style of a zone-man hybrid, and holds opponents to 32.2% from the 3pt line, a solid way to limit opponent strength and to provide offensive rebounding opportunities.
- TCU does not let teams get to the line. They are 69th in the nation in field goals to free throw attempts ratio. Free throws are literally that, free points, and to limit opportunities means more missed shots, more forced turnovers, and cleaner defense.
- TCU is the 26th tallest team in the country. That means what you want it to mean, but being tall doesn’t hurt in the game of basketball.
- The Frogs also rank in the top 30 in minutes continuity. This makes sense, as TCU brought back it’s top six scorers and our main man Dalton Dry. Shout out to Dalton Dry.
- Tempo is perhaps the most important of the miscellany. Tempo correlates slightly positively to offensive efficiency and extremely negatively to defensive efficiency. TCU is towards the bottom in tempo, in terms of national rank, but has trended towards fewer possessions (good for the defense) since topping out at 81 possessions in the Omaha game. Jamie Dixon’s style has been to slow the game down, and his teams have been in the bottom 100 of tempo once (consequently, they were a one seed that year). TCU’s pace will be a rough indicator for success in a stacked Big 12: with 7 of 9 conference foes in the top 45 of offensive efficiency, controlling pace will be key, but to sacrifice tempo for offensive efficiency will be the story of TCU’s year.
Finally, in this out of conference slate, what are some concerns for the Frogs, areas where they struggle?
- On defense, TCU is allowing 53.5% shooting on 2pt attempts. Stopping the three is a strength of this team, but if they continue to give up so much in the paint, they’ll stumble against the bigger and better offenses in the Big 12.
- 70.65 on free throws is downright annoying, but what’s worse is the turnover percentage on both sides of the ball. TCU’s offense and defense are both outside the top 100 in TO%, reflective of some growing pains of the team, but also reflective of a general trend of sloppy play so far this season. They’ve struggled against the press. That is going to have to get better with opponents like West Virginia on the slate.
The Horned Frogs started the season in the top 15 of KenPom, and ask the pre-season rankings have phased out, found themselves as low as the high twenties. Since, they’ve worked themselves back up, and are trending upwards heading into a high stakes showdown with Oklahoma to begin conference play. The Horned Frog’s high powered offense looks up to the task, and their success in the Big 12 this season will depend on how the defense adjusts and grows.
*Note, aside from the brief mention of the AP Poll above, all rankings mentioned will refer to Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings. I cannot say this enough: Ken does indispensable work for understanding the game of basketball, and if you’re even slightly inclined towards stats, a subscription at his site is invaluable.