It is fitting that in a year as filled with uncertainty as 2020, that the Frogs would have the most uncertain squad in the entire Big 12. Entering into Jamie Dixon’s 5th year, gone is every remnant of the “Believers” who led TCU to the 2017 NIT Title. Gone is the backbone of the team that took the Frogs to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 20 years. Gone is Desmond Bane, one of the top players in program history and a possible first-round draft pick. What we’re left with is a program that is at a fork in the road: will the future look more like the NIT champion and NCAA bound teams of a few years ago, or the transfer-riddled squads of the past two seasons? Coach Dixon will have to rally a young team this season, and do it in the strangest circumstances imaginable.
Closing the Book on 2019-20
The last time we saw the Frogs, they were losing a heartbreaker in Kansas City. The Frogs lost a 53-49 slugfest with Kansas State in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament, and by the next day, college basketball and the entire country began shutting down as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the U.S. It was an ill-fitting farewell to Desmond Bane, but an encapsulation of the story of the 2019-20 TCU team. Between blowing a 20 point lead at home against Oklahoma in the final game of the regular season, to a six game losing streak in February, to heartbreaking losses to USC and Clemson, the Frogs were a frustrating bunch last season. Offensively the team couldn’t get out of their own way, turning the ball over at a horrid clip (last in the Big 12 and better than only Georgia Tech in the major conferences), bricking free throws, and relying far too much on one player (Bane) to solve every problem. Defensively the team fell apart in conference play, ranking second to last in defensive rating and were eviscerated routinely by everyone from Austin Reaves in Oklahoma to Udoka Azubuike in Kansas. The Frogs were likely NIT bound at best last season, and considering they are losing Bane and two rotation players in Edric Dennis and Jaire Grayer, the hill looks awful tall to climb in this new season.
The Big Two
The biggest question facing the Frogs is how to replace a Desmond Bane sized hole in their offense. The leading candidates will be the two veterans: junior center Kevin Samuel and junior wing R.J. Nembhard. Samuel has already been one of the best rim protectors in all of college basketball, ranking just outside the top 10 in blocks per game at 2.7, and providing an anchor inside that gives the perimeter players a safety net. Offensively, he’s a throwback big man: killer on offensive glass, able to finish in the paint off the pick and roll, and has decent jump hook. For him to take charge of the offense, he would need to expand his array of post moves and at least threaten a competent jump shot. Another area of concern has been his free throw shooting: 38% last year and 40% for his career. We know what Kevin is right now, an incredibly solid center that any team would love to have. The question is can he take the next step and becoming an all-conference level player?
Nembhard is the most natural Bane replacement, given his improvement from last season and his similar positioning out on the wing. The thing that stands out with R.J. was his playmaking improvement; his assist rate increased by 15 percentage points and he was particularly strong as a distributor in the Oklahoma, Texas, and Lamar games last season. This will be important as R.J. will likely be asked to be the primary ball handler in many lineups because of the lack of depth at guard. The key for Nembhard is consistency. This is a player who dropped 31 points on 15 shots in an overtime win at Iowa State, only to turn around a week later and have 5 points and 3 turnovers against Oklahoma State. The tools are there for R.J. He has the frame to finish at the rim better than he does (39% on two pointers last season) and his jump shot was marginally improved from year one to two. The Frogs will be relying on him putting all the pieces together this upcoming season.
The Frogs return four players besides Samuel and Nembhard who received rotation minutes from last season: P.J. Fuller, Francisco Farabello, Diante Smith, and Jaedon LeDee. The Frogs will probably need more than one of these guys to step up; the good news is they all are young and got a good amount of playing time last season.
Fuller is a player TCU fans have been excited for since he committed back in 2018, and he flashed some of that high-flying potential in his freshman campaign last season. He dropped 21 points in the upset win over Baylor, and was consistently TCU’s most disruptive player in the passing lanes and on the fast break. He uses a strong hesitation dribble and crossover move to slice his way to the rim and finished well through contact. He has a decent pull up jumper and can get hot from the perimeter, but he either needs to become more consistent or stop settling for jumpers and stay in attack mode on the basket. He will never be a floor general despite being only 6’4, but regardless he could stand to clean up his turnover numbers as well (27.4 TO rate was 2nd highest on team). He did a much better job in conference play at getting to the line and playing within himself when his jumper wasn’t falling, and the Frogs will need to see more of that this season.
Farabello, the Argentinian point guard, definitely took his lumps as a freshman. He shot the ball a bit better than expected, over 40% from three on the year, but he turned the ball over at a 30% clip which was a large driver of the Frogs ranking 320th in giving the ball away. He was replaced in the starting lineup by Edric Dennis after only a handful of games, but largely played starter’s minutes until missing some time with injury at the end of the season. The keys will firmly be in Farabello’s hands this year, and his experience running the show as a true freshman will hopefully allow the game to slow down for him and tamp down the turnovers.
Smith established himself early on as a glue guy in the rotation, getting a start from game one. The big issue for him was getting the ball in the basket, his 25/18/52 shooting splits left a ton to be desired. He works well in the team since he doesn’t need the ball in his hands very often, and he has the frame to match up against multiple positions on defense, but TCU needs a much better version of Smith this season.
LeDee was a late transfer from Ohio State last season, and a former 4-star recruit. In his deputizing for Samuel last season, he did a decent job. He was not a world beater like some fans were expecting given his recruiting pedigree, but for a back-up he crashed the boards well and allowed Samuel to get a breath or two. If LeDee develops into a more reliable back-up, that would be a great sign for a strong season to come.
The New Guys
Former 5-star and USC transfer Charles O’Bannon Jr. has only played 18 career games due to a litany of injuries, but has the pedigree to be a potential impact player. Additionally, forward Kevin Easley will be available to play after sitting out following his transfer from Chattanooga. He was the conference freshman of the year, so the Frogs will be counting on him to contribute right away. Taryn Todd and Mickey Pearson both took redshirt years last season, but should have rotation spots this season (especially Pearson, who Coach Dixon spoke highly of during the season last year).
True freshmen will also be battling for rotation spots. Mike Miles will also have a chance to compete for a spot at guard; the former childhood phenom excelled in the Texas high school basketball scene. Eddie Lampkin is a massive dude at 6’11 300 pounds, but it wouldn’t shock me if he got a redshirt to get his strength and conditioning in line. Terren Frank is a long forward from the super-school Sierra Canyon in California, where LeBron James and Dwyane Wade’s sons play. It’s always hard to say how much true freshmen will play in a given year, and even harder to project how effective they will be when we’ve only seen them in high school (where they are usually physically dominant over everyone else) or AAU (where the style of play doesn’t port well to college or pro basketball).
As has been typical in the Dixon era, the Frogs will largely stay in Texas and play highly ranked mid-majors in non-conference. Highlights include a game at Dickies Arena against Texas A&M, hosting perennial Tournament contender Providence in Fort Worth, and traveling to Columbia to face Mizzou in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Frogs will only play 8 non-conference games this year and 26 overall, with a strong likelihood of at least a game or two getting cancelled.
Potential Depth Chart
The media poll has the Frogs finishing 9th in the conference, KenPom has them going 13-13 and finishing 8th. With so many unknowns, it makes more sense to look at a potential range of outcomes rather than make a hard and fast prediction. If things go right, this means that one of R.J. Nembhard or Kevin Samuel has become “the guy”, with a player like P.J. Fuller, Francisco Farabello, or Kevin Easley emerging as a legit third option. The bench is also a key wildcard, especially depth at the guard positions with two unknowns (Todd and Miles). If things go wrong, then a young team will suffer growing pains in the most talented basketball conference in America. I think a reasonable expectation for this team would be a middle NIT seed, with a dark horse run at the Big Dance in the cards should Coach Dixon and crew develop as the season goes along.