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Midweek Musing: A Dearth of Depth

As if the Big 12 wasn’t tough enough, try winning games with just seven players.

NCAA Basketball: West Virginia at Texas Christian Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

The Horned Frogs have hit a tough stretch over the last month, going 4-5 over their last nine games and having yet to put together any kind of win streak since beginning conference play. But the issues that they had prior to Jaylen Fisher’s injury have only been exasperated since he went down for the season in mid-January, and it hasn’t helped that the rest of the team has been a rotating door of injuries and illness in the meantime.

Before we dive in to the details, it’s important that we lay a couple things out:

  • Jamie Dixon is in just his second season at TCU, and first full recruiting cycle
  • TCU was as moribund a program as there was in the country just two years ago
  • Fans are unrealistic

TCU Basketball wasn’t a refresh or a reload, it was an out and out rebuild. And that’s really hard to do that on the fly, especially for a coach who made his bones on the east coast and had been at the same school for 13 years prior to returning to the place he played his college ball. To not just make the NIT (something the Frogs hadn’t done since 2005) but win it, in year one, was unimaginable heading into the season - and thus, build unrealistic expectations for year two.

If that sounds like a lot of excuses, well, it is. But just because something is an excuse doesn’t make it untrue. The Frogs lack depth, and it’s not really something anyone can be faulted for. It’s not like there have been any big swings and misses, some things are just out of your control. And those things have hurt the Frogs in some of their biggest games this season. I think it’s time, as fans, that we stop looking at some of these close losses as the Frogs ‘blowing it’ and more as being impressed and excited that TCU is that close to the top competition. There was a day when losing to a top ten team by single digits was something to celebrate - and that day was like 18 months ago. Now we are bemoaning having final possessions to beat teams with single digits in front of their names, and complaining that it’s not happening.

When we talk about a lack of depth, that can mean a lot of things to different basketball teams and programs. The Frogs have suffered from a litany of issues that have kept players off the floor for various amounts of time, including injury, illness, and transcript issues, to name a few. Going into the season, it looked like Dixon was going to have an eight man rotation to play with, with a couple guys that could give you quality minutes in short spurts when needed.

But the Frogs lost RJ Nembhard over the holidays to knee and ankle injuries, and to this point, it appears Dixon will keep him as a redshirt. Forwards Lat Mayen and Kevin Samuel are both practicing with the team, but neither will play after the NCAA took time clearing those players due to transcript issues needing to be cleared up. Shawn Olden has missed the last two games due to a concussion, and Jaylen Fisher, of course, is out for the year after a practice injury required surgery and shut him down.

With the loss of Nembhard, Fisher, and most recently Olden, TCU is without a secondary ball-handler, and that came back to bite them against WVU and the press. While this isn’t the “Press Virginia” of old, it’s incredibly draining on a PG to have to bring the ball up against pressure for 40 minutes, and it requires other guys to have to play out of their comfort zone, messing up the offensive flow. When the Frogs hosted WVU on Big Monday, we saw a ton of Vlad and Kenny bringing the ball up to spell A Rob, and at home, it worked. On Monday, it was less effective, and TCU was taken completely out of their offense once the Eers started putting points on the board allowing them to set up the full court defense. Hustle is a solid ball handler for his position, but isn’t a full-time point-forward, and while Bane’s handles have improved significantly from his freshman year, he’s still developing in that area and doesn’t have the ball control of Robinson. There really isn’t another guard on the roster, and while Olden is expected back Saturday, it does make the lack of ball-handler depth a glaring weakness for TCU.

The other issue becomes foul trouble, which has negated the improved defensive effort down the stretch of several games. The Frogs were flying around the court against WVU early, but once players start picking up that second foul, they become gun shy. Robinson is always the one you worry about - any time he gets whistled for number two, you can see the entire team’s countenance change. Credit Jamie Dixon for making some smart coaching moves - using Dalton Dry at the end of periods or in defensive situations when A Rob is in foul trouble has really paid off recently, and while he might only play a couple of minutes a game, his ability to be on the floor and execute the game plan was huge in spots during the win over Texas. This doesn’t just effect the guards though, as Ahmed Hamdy has been foul prone over the last month or so, and only Kouat Noi and JD Miller are really “interchangeable” on the floor. When Olden is available, Dixon has used him to spell Bane and Williams effectively, but Robinson is averaging 36.5 out of a possible 40 minutes per game since Fisher’s injury, playing at least 33 in all but one game (when he fouled out at Oklahoma State). While Dixon isn’t concerned about his conditioning or ability to play nearly every minute of every contest, A Rob has dealt with injuries and illness this year, and him getting worn down has to be at least somewhat of a concern.

At the end of the day, though, the roster is what it is. It will be much deeper in year three, but TCU is competing for a tourney bid NOW. Dixon has made some changeups to the roster, most notably inserting Noi into the starting lineup, and has talked in pressers about changing some of the way they practice to accommodate the extra minutes his guys are playing. To some degree, they just have to get through it, which is certainly possible over the remainder of the regular season, where they play just two games a week (and have three of five at home), but will become much more difficult come Big 12 Tournament time where they will need to play daily as/if they advance. Of course, the hope by then is, they will have a tourney bid all but locked up and may just need to win a game to ensure it.

The good news is, this doesn’t appear to be a long-term problem, and a deep and versatile roster is on the horizon. Getting Fish back, adding Mayen, Samuel, and Angus McWilliam (who is on campus now), as well as a quarter of talented signees in PG Kendric Davis, forward Kaden Archie, and centers Russell Barlow and Yuat Alok - at least two of whom will likely be day one contributors - should alleviate a lot of the depth concerns. And add in that the Frogs graduate just three players (though the loss of Vlad and Kenny is massive), and you could realistically be looking at a legit nine man rotation in 2018-2019.

For now, though, the players will be forced to fight through the things they can’t control, and dig deep to try and win four out of their next five and send themselves into March Madness, a place Frog fans haven’t seen in 20 years. And they will need our continued support to do so.