There’s an argument to be made, not one I’m sure I believe, but a plausible one nonetheless that TCU Basketball is entering a “year zero” of sorts. Heading in Jamie Dixon’s fourth season, the Frogs have exercised their NCAA tournament ghosts (2018), and found some NIT success along the way (2017, 2019), boosting the Horned Frogs’ reputation (and perhaps moral) on the court.
This offseason, though, that seemed to come undone. The 2019 Horned Frogs started the season 15-4 reaching as high as 19th in KenPom’s efficiency ratings, then proceeded to lose 8 of 12 down the stretch, including overtime heartbreakers against Kansas and at West Virginia, either of which might have catapulted TCU into the NCAA tournament. Alas, a disappointing end to the season and an early exit in the Big 12 tournament turned slightly sweet with an NIT one-seed, and the Frogs found a little postseason mojo, eliminating their first three consolation opponents by an average margin of 14 points. The Frogs then put up perhaps the most lackluster performance of the Jamie Dixon era, unfortunately against a conference opponent they had beaten solidly twice this season: the Frogs shot 19% from there, 33% from the field, and were out-rebounded on the offensive side of the ball 29-14 as they lost 58-44 to eventual NIT champion Texas in a game not as close as the score indicates.
The Frogs elimination from the NIT came on the night of April 2nd, a Tuesday. The program almost burst apart at the seams immediately thereafter. First, reports of head coach Jamie Dixon’s interest in the UCLA job emerged, culminating in rumors of terms agreed to and contracts being finalized. It appeared, granted without comment from Dixon, that the Frog hometown favorite was headed for the coast. The negotiations came down to buyouts, and credit to Jeremiah Donati and the TCU administration - the university would not budge on Dixon’s $8 million buyout, and eventually UCLA had to give up on the pursuit of their second-favorite coaching hire (assuming the Bruins ever had a realistic chance of signing John Calapari away from Kentucky), and quickly pivoted to how former Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin would lead their program into the future.
As the dust was settling, though, the program took a few more blows. First, we’ll note the departure of Jaylen Fisher, although that writing was on the wall long before the Dixon conversation took place. The highest ranked recruit in TCU basketball history couldn’t shake injury issues, and never really panned out - what could’ve been a solid junior season from a talented and finally healthy point guard never came to be, and Fisher now finds himself headlining a Grand Canyon University team that will be sure to feel familiar to any Frog. (Seriously, go take a gander at the GCU branding and tell me where you’ve seen that before.) Next up, freshman spark plug Kendric Davis, who played 42% of available minutes for the Frogs, transferred to SMU. That blow, while painful - who can forget Kendric against Kansas, almost pulling off the unbelievable? - isn’t enough to devastate a program on its own.
The next chip to fall - and the hardest to bear - was the departure of Kouat Noi, who was in many was the heart, soul, and charm of the TCU team. Noi played the third most minutes on the team last year, and lead the team in shots taken. With another year of development, the ceiling on the junior Noi looked to be sky-high, but circumstances beyond anyone’s control and certainly absolved from any blame dictated that Noi needed to pursue professional basketball at this point in time.
Couple those three tough transfers (and freshman Kaden Archie’s early disappearance from the team) with the loss of key contributors JD Miller and Alex Robinson, who both graduated, and where many thought TCU might take a meaningful step forward, the Frogs’ season looks more uncertain than anyone could’ve anticipated.
This brings us back to year zero. Jamie Dixon flirted with the one job he would leave TCU for, and motivation or obligation notwithstanding returned to Fort Worth. He’s here to stay, and Trent Johnson’s fingerprints are finally wiped from the program with the graduation of Miller and Robinson. This is Dixon’s program, no more excuses, no more sandbags. He has the resources, he has the reigns. If TCU basketball is to be remade and prove that their 2018 tournament appearance was more than a fluke, this is the season for that to start. This is Jamie Dixon’s year zero.
The Big 12 media poll ranked the Horned Frogs 10th in the conference, unanimously, and it’s hard to discredit that line of thinking. TCU returns effectively only two members of their core - pre-season All-Big 12 selection senior Desmond Bane and redshirt sophomore Kevin Samuel - but has a roster otherwise supplemented with a few veterans and a lot of upside. Those two members of the core are posed for big seasons: Desmond Bane finished the season in the top 100 nationally of offensive rating last season, 49th in field goal percentage and 97th in 3 point percentage (42.5%), averaging 15.2 points a game.
I need to take a quick detour to talk about Desmond Bane, specifically about one way the Frogs need him to grow this senior season, especially given their young roster: consistency. Bane scored 20 points in 8 games last season, with a season high of 34 in a win against Texas in the regular season. When Bane goes, the TCU offense was hard to stop. On the other hand, Bane scored in single digits 9 time, and had more than a few games where he went scoreless in an entire half. Bane’s disappearance was often the result of a score-first point guard, but with a roster full of freshman around him, Bane can’t have the luxury of disappearing and being covered this season. He’s going to have to be The Guy.
The other staple of the returning Frogs is 6’11” 250 lb. center Kevin Samuel. Last season, Samuel finished 14th nationally in effective field goal percentage, 36th in block rate, and 58th in offensive rebound rate. The big man played as well as anyone could’ve hoped out of a true freshman in the Big 12, but didn’t quite reach that breakout potential everyone saw in him. He averaged 7.4 points and 7 rebounds last season in 24.5 minutes a game. Some of that usage was a result of Coach Jamie Dixon easing the freshman into a full workload - in the last month of the season, Samuel averaged over 28 minutes a game, including NIT blowouts against Creighton, Nebraska, and Sam Houston State where Samuel sat in the second half. Samuel didn’t make the cut for the Big 12 preseason All-Conference team, not even an honorable mention, and that might be a good thing for the sophomore to have a chip and fight to regain some of his reputation after a season of development.
In terms of Veterans, TCU has RJ Nembhard, a sophomore who played meaningful minutes as a freshman, averaging just over 20 minutes a game from the middle of February on, supplementing some injury holes TCU had. Sophomore Center Russell Barlow (6’10”, 235) looks to contribute behind Samuel this year, giving the Frogs a nice 1-2 punch in the post rotation. This will be especially important as Samuel has shown that he can get into foul trouble quick. Supplementing TCU’s rotation will be grad transfers Edric Dennis, Jr. (UT-A) and Jaire Grayer (George Mason), both adding experience to a young squad.
In terms of upside, the Frogs’ roster features 11 freshmen, not all of whom will play this year, but headlined by guards Francisco Farabello (4 star, 10th best PG in the class), PJ Fuller (4 star, 73rd in ESPN’s top 100), and Taryn Todd (3 star) and forwards Diante Smith (4 star, 16th overall in the state of Florida) and Mickey Pearson, JR (3 star). This team isn’t going to be good at the start, as players will have to learn how to play with and through each other, and learn the offense, but you could see this roster growing up quickly throughout the season.
TCU faces 19 top 50 KenPom opponents. In line with previous scheduling trends, the non-conference slate will be relatively mediocre, with a few exceptions: the Frogs will face three top 100 teams, and 5 in the top 150, but games against #18 Xavier and #44 Arkansas represent two of the highest-ranked non-conference opponents TCU has played under Jamie Dixon. Only 2018 Florida (#26), 2017 SMU (#11), and 2018 Nevada (#25) outrank Arkansas, and if preseason projections are to be believed, Xavier will be the second highest-rated non-conference opponent of the Jamie Dixon era at TCU. Starting on January 7th, just into conference play, TCU faces a murderer’s row: their average opponent rank decreases every game until the 25th, and that stretch features home games vs. #15 Texas Tech and #40 Oklahoma State, with away games versus #59 West Virginia, #25 Oklahoma, and #44 Arkansas.
Other potential sticking points on the schedule: to start February, TCU is projected to lose five out of a six game stretch: losses @ #13 Baylor, @ #40 Ok State, vs #10 Kansas, @ #15 Texas Tech, and @ #32 Texas, with a slight win projection over #49 Kansas State at home, a team TCU has beaten only twice in 8 games during Jamie Dixon, and beaten only once at home in three tires. KenPom projects TCU to be 14-5 headed into that stretch, and if that’s the case, that six game stretch can either solidify TCU has a tournament team or drop them to the bottom of the conference.
Conference play in the Big 12 is always a struggle, but combining TCU’s January and February feels almost unfair. From Saturday, January 4th (TCU’s first conference game) to Saturday, February 29th, the Frogs play 19 games, 17 of which come against top 50 KenPom teams, 10 of those on the road. That would be the gauntlet for an experienced team, let alone a team facing some of the largest turnover in the nation.
February/March regular season 2019: 4-7 (NIT), record heading in: 15-5
February/March regular season 2018: 6-4 (NCAA), record heading in: 16-6
February/March regular season 2017: 3-7 (NIT), record heading in: 14-7
TCU’s February/March (late conference play) troubles in 2017/2019 confined them to the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament. The selection committee has shown that TCU will not get the benefit of the doubt or a favorable resume interpretation, and so the Frogs are going to have to navigate conference play in a more convincing way if they’re to get back to the tournament, a feat frankly no one is projecting them to do.
In the non-conference, the key games are of course #18 Xavier at home and # 44 Arkansas in Fayetteville, but there are some other resume-building opportunities. The Frogs play in the MGM Resorts Main Event this season, a tournament featuring #46 TCU, #37 Colorado, and #79 Clemson.
TCU will host #111 UC-Irving as part of the event, then will face Clemson in the semifinals, with an opportunity to play Colorado, should both teams win. UC-Irving won 31 games last season, and as a 13 seed in the NCAA tournament made the second round by upsetting #4 Kansas State. The Anteaters are projected yet again to finish atop the Big West conference, and represent a huge potential boost to TCU’s tournament resume. Colorado is also a potential trophy, projected to finish in the top 3 of the Pac 12.
Other potential resume-builders for TCU: hosting #48 USC (proj. 4th in the Pac 12), a team that TCU beat so badly last year, the win ended up not bolstering the Frogs’ resume, weirdly enough. Xavier is expected to compete for the Big East title, projected third by KenPom, and Arkansas under new coach Eric Musselman is projected as a top-half SEC team.
KenPom projects the Frogs at 18-13, (presuming the Frogs beat Clemson, they’re projected to lost on a neutral to Colorado), seventh in the Big 12, and on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament. The 2020 TCU team features a lot of upside, but also a lot of question marks. Frog fans should content themselves with development and growth of the younger players, and enjoy Desmond Bane’s senior season, which is sure to be special. If Bane and some newcomers click, and Kevin Samuel takes the next step as a player, this Frog team could be worth watching: they’ll be able to put three four star freshmen on the court, which should make them erratic, inconsistent, and fun as hell. For Jamie Dixon’s year zero, that’s all we could ask to see.