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NIT Round One Preview: Sam Houston State

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The Frogs look to shake off a NCAA Tournament snub and start the path to Madison Square Garden

Will Desmond Bane and Kendric Davis be celebrating this evening?
Melissa Triebwasser

Game Time: 8:00 PM CDT | Location: Ed and Rae Schollmaier Arena – Fort Worth, TX | TV: ESPNU | Series: TCU leads 8-2 | Game Line: TCU -14

The TCU Horned Frogs (20-13) were left out of the NCAA Tournament this season, but their status as a first 4 out team has landed them a #1 seed in the NIT and a date with the Sam Houston State Bearkats (21-11). It was a painful exclusion for the Frogs, who were on the right side of the bubble in nearly every projection the day before. On the bright side, the Frogs get another chance to play in Fort Worth and a clear path to a second NIT title in the Dixon Era. This team has come a long way from just a few seasons ago, and there’s still plenty to play for.

The Bearkats won the Southland regular season title, but were upset by New Orleans and have to settle for their NIT autobid. After going 5-8 against a quite strong non-conference slate featuring Clemson, Georgia, ETSU, and Utah Valley, the Bearkats won their first 12 conference games and finished 16-2. There was a bit of luck involved; they went 3-0 in overtime games and they played in the 29th most difficult conference according to KenPom (out of 32 total). Still, any time you accomplish 20 wins that’s an accomplishment, and their style of play can cause problems for any team.

The Bearkats offense is very strong, jacking up a ton of threes and making them at a decent clip (37.7% ranks 36th among D-1 teams). They are also a great free throw shooting team, 76.5% is 18th nationally, showcases just how natural their shooting abilities are. This is necessary since the Bearkats are among the nation’s smallest teams. Their starting center is only 6’7, and overall they only have 2 players taller than 6’6. Holistically, their average height ranks 343rd in the country, helping to explain their rough 48.2% shooting from inside the arc. The lack of size is also an explainer for their average at best defense, which fouls a lot and gives up free throws at a high clip (FTA/FGA ranks at 338th nationally). Opponents simply live at the line, so the Bearkats typically ramp up the pressure and force turnovers. It’s their only standout stat on that end, 35th best nationally, which is surprising for such a veteran team. TCU is the best team the Bearkats have faced in a good while, so it’ll be interesting to see if they’ve tightened up their D in the meantime.

Projected Starting Five

#2 Cameron Delaney (Senior from Harker Heights, TX)

2018-19 Stats: 13.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.9 APG, 47/44/82 shooting splits

One of two brothers in the starting five, Delaney was named Southland Player of the Year after sparingly playing as a bench player a season ago. A one time transfer from Denver, Delaney shot a blistering 49% from three in conference play, en route to being the league’s top overall shooter. He’s a bit small for his wing position; Kouat Noi is going to tower over him. Even when his shot is off, he knows the offense so well and will hit the glass and make the right pass to compensate. While he hasn’t been completely ineffective against top tier competition, he certainly has experienced a drop off. He shot only 28% from three against KenPom Tier A+B teams, seeing almost a 10 point drop in his offensive rating. Still, Delaney is the Kats’ most dangerous weapon, and will find a way to make his impact on the game. Also, he and his brother have great hair, so at the very least that will be fun to watch.

#20 Kai Mitchell (Junior from Haverstraw, NY)

2018-19 Stats: 12.2 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 1.1 APG, 55/0/70 shooting splits

Mitchell, a JUCO transfer, was named Southland Newcomer of the Year and a 3rd Team All Southland selection. He runs at center for the Kats, he was the 6’7 guy I was talking about earlier. Despite his relatively short stature, he hits the glass hard. His defensive rebound rate was good for 4th in conference and 73rd nationally, and he is also a pretty strong rim protector. Like many bigs, foul trouble is a concern for Mitchell, resulting in his minutes being limited to about 23 a game. While I think Mitchell is very skilled, I wonder how he’ll matchup with Kevin Samuel, who has a good four or five inches on him. When he was matched up with Georgia’s Nicholas Claxton, he was limited to 4 points on 2/9 shooting, though he did grab 11 boards. One thing is for sure: Mitchell will keep shooting and uses a lot of Kats possessions, so for better or worse we’ll be hearing from #20 a bunch.

#15 Josh Delaney (Senior from Harker Heights, TX)

2018-19 Stats: 10.6 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 4.8 APG, 37/35/85 shooting splits

The other Delaney brother, Josh was named Third Team All Southland after this past season. He’s far less of a scorer than his brother, opting instead to run the offense and knock down a couple of threes a game (he shot a very healthy 39% from three in conference play). He’s quite the streaky scorer for good and bad, as he was able to drop 30 points twice this season, but also disappeared in games as easy as Incarnate Word (2 points on 0/4 from the field). There were high hopes for Delaney to become a top tier scorer after a strong close to his junior year in the SLC Tournament and the CIT. While that never quite materialized, his senior leadership running the offense (#1 in assist rate in conference) and the emergence of his brother and Mitchell made that a moot point. Josh Delaney is just as important as Cameron, and the Frogs would be foolish to not crash their defense on those two and Mitchell.

#22 Marcus Harris (Senior from San Antonio, TX)

2018-19 Stats: 8.2 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 2.3 APG, 40/32/72 shooting splits

A one time transfer from San Diego, Harris hasn’t taken the step forward many thought he would in his senior season. One of the Bearkats’ leading returning scorers, Harris has fallen to 4th on the team in scoring on only 51.4% true shooting. He has come up big a few times when SHSU has needed him, namely scoring 23 points on 9/9 shooting in a 2OT win over Abilene Christian and a valiant 22 points in the Utah Valley loss. In other good news for SHSU, Harris started heating up as the season came to a close, as before the New Orleans game he had scored in double figures in six straight (seven of his last eight). Harris is a classic shooting guard in a point guard’s body, standing at only 6’0, so you have to imagine he’ll struggle with the big and physical Desmond Bane. We’ll see how Harris performs; will we see the inefficient player from most of the season or the guy who has closed the past two seasons red hot?

#0 Albert Almanza (Senior from Austin, TX)

2018-19 Stats: 6.1 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 0.8 APG, 37/34/87 shooting splits

Almanza is your classic glue guy #5 starter. He’s not going to wow you on the stat sheet, in fact he’s only scored in double figures seven times all season. What he is is a guy who fits in nicely with the Delaneys and Mitchell who need the ball in their hands more often than not. He’s played all four years he’s been on the team, so he may be the guy with the most corporate knowledge on the team. He won’t turn it over, and will usually even knock down one or two threes to make his mark on offense. There’s not nearly as much to write about Almanza’s overall game, but that doesn’t mean his impact isn’t meaningful for the Bearkats.

Projected Reserves

#3 Chad Bowie (Junior from Houston, TX)

2018-19 Stats: 7.2 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 2.4 APG, 41/36/77 shooting splits

Bowie, another JUCO transfer, had a brief stint in the starting lineup before settling into his current role as backup point guard. He is a pest on defense, with a 4.4% steal rate ranking almost top 10 nationally (11th), and that number spiked to 5.5% during conference play. He’s got the ability to fill it up quickly; he’s essentially the perfect spark plug off the bench. The good can turn into the bad if his shot is not falling. He went 2/11 against Clemson and 4/14 against Georgia. Still, the potential for a big game off the bench is huge for a team like SHSU, especially if one of their three primary options is having a rough night. Like Harris, we’ll have to wait and see which version of Bowie shows up on Wednesday.

#1 RJ Smith (Sophomore from Olathe, KS)

2018-19 Stats: 6.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 0.7 APG, 43/44/73 shooting splits

Smith is, you guessed it, another JUCO product, this time by way of Oral Roberts. His shooting ability is clear as day, he made 46% of his threes in conference play, and for the bench guys that one skill can take them a long way. He rolls in for a lot of small ball lineups, even running the center spot despite standing at 6’5. He’s actually very aggressive on the offensive glass, sporting a 10% offensive rebounding rate which is elite for his size. He grabbed 4 offensive boards and 7 overall against New Orleans just in his last time out. Smith is a key aspect of some of SHSU’s more unique lineups, so when #1 is in get ready for the offense to get more spread out and small.

#10 Zach Nutall (Freshman from Bryan, TX)

2018-19 Stats: 6.4 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.0 APG, 45/38/60 shooting splits

Nutall is the rare guy on this team that had no college experience coming into the season, but he has had a largely successful freshman campaign. 43% from three in conference, a good motor on the glass, and a general understanding of positioning on defense have elevated Nutall into a key reserve role. He hasn’t been perfect, as expected from a freshman he hit a wall and struggled through a large part of the middle of the season. Moving forward he’s a key piece for the Kats, and I’d expect another solid output for him on Wednesday.

#13 Bubba Furlong (Junior from Waco, TX)

2018-19 Stats: 3.4 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 0.3 APG, 56/60/68 shooting splits

Furlong is the tallest player on the Bearkats’ roster, standing at 6’9. He’s strong on the glass and rotationally on defense. His problems are classic for a young big man: foul trouble and a propensity for turning it over (often these problems are connected: moving screens, etc.). He apparently has something of a three point shot, though he’s only thrown up 5 attempts, but that could be another wrinkle in his game moving forward. His minutes have been inconsistent, but he may play more this game to try and match Kevin Samuel’s size.

Three Things to Look For

The Three Ball, Again

In what is basically a recurring segment in this section, the three ball will likely decide this game. As regular readers know, the Frogs are great at defending the three, allowing 30.5% from long range (22nd). The Bearkats are so reliant on the three that if they aren’t nailing those, they’ll be in big trouble. I can’t seem them bucking their troubles inside considering Kevin Samuel patrolling down there, so they’ll have to hope for a hot shooting night.

Turnovers

Giving the ball away, especially in crucial moments in the second half, absolutely killed the Frogs this season. In fact, it switched the outcomes of some games and likely kept them from dancing. Given this fact, it seems crucial that Alex Robinson, Kendric Davis, and company all need to take care of the ball against such an aggressive defensive. The Frogs have the talent advantage, they can’t give that up by allowing threes and throwing the ball away.

Size

The Frogs are going to tower over the Bearkats. The three guys I mentioned earlier, Noi, Bane, and Samuel, will all have chances to have huge games given their defensive matchups. This can’t be a looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane situation; the Frogs have to play bully ball and take full advantage of their size difference, especially given the difference in depth on each team.

Prediction

It’s a bitter pill to swallow that the Frogs aren’t dancing, but we don’t have a ton of time to wallow in misery. The Frogs have to refocus, and you have to imagine that being on their home court will help in that regard. The line sits at 14 as of the writing of this article. I don’t think the Frogs win that comfortably, but I think they do pull this one out.

The talent disparity is simply too large to ignore. I predict a huge game from Desmond Bane, and a huge tourney for the junior in total. The Frogs control the game from start to finish and advance to a much tougher second round matchup.

Prediction: TCU 80, Sam Houston State 70

Here are the game notes, courtesy of GoFrogs.com:

  • TCU will make its eighth NIT appearance when it hosts Sam Houston State Wednesday at 8 p.m. on ESPNU.
  • It will be the second time ever TCU will play in a postseason tournament in three straight seasons, the first time since 1999.
  • TCU is 14-6 all-time in the NIT and won the tournament during its last appearance in 2017. It was the Frogs’ first postseason tournament championship.
  • Desmond Bane, JD Miller and Alex Robinson will join Prince Fowler as the only players ever at TCU to participate in a postseason tournament in three different seasons.
  • Desmond Bane (2nd Team), Alex Robinson (3rd Team) and Kouat Noi (Honorable Mention) were named All-Big 12. Bane and Robinson were also named All-Big 12 by the Associated Press.
  • Alex Robinson ranks seventh in the nation at 7.0 assists per game. He is TCU’s all-time assist leader at 648 and ranks No. 2 nationally with 732 total career assists when including his freshman season at Texas A&M. Robinson along with Owen Aschieris were named Academic All-Big 12 this season.
  • Desmond Bane (18th), Alex Robinson (20th) and JD Miller (25th) have each gone over 1,000 career points and rank in the top 25 in school history in points scored.
  • Kevin Samuel’s 67.5 percent shooting ranks second in the Big 12 and his 2.0 blocks per game ranks fourth in the conference. He has recorded at least one block in the last 16 games. His 67 blocked shots is the most ever by a TCU freshman.
  • The Horned Frogs rank 20th in the nation with 16.2 assists per game. For the third-straight year, TCU is leading the Big 12 in assists.
  • TCU’s roster consists of just 11 players, six who are freshmen or redshirt freshmen. The Frogs have played just seven guys in each of their last eight games.