Just a few short games ago, PJ Fuller couldn’t get off the bench. And then, as soon as he fought his way back into the rotation, he was out of it — sidelined with a bum ankle. On Saturday, though, a confident Fuller displayed the elite athleticism and impressive offensive skill set that made his such a highly desired recruit out of high school.
Despite missing as much practice time as anyone — probably in the country — Fuller didn’t look rusty Saturday, dropping 13 points, including a pair of three pointers, and providing much-needed ball-handling against Buzz Williams’ 1-2-2 trapping press, the same type of defense that gave the Frogs fits just three days prior. Though the Frogs worked on breaking the press in their one practice since their last time out, both RJ Nembhard and Mike Miles credit PJ’s return to the lineup as the biggest difference maker of the day. “Having PJ back as a third guard really helped,” Miles said. “In practice, we went over the press, how to stay in control, but having PJ back helped us as much as anything.” The emotional leader Saturday, Fuller was all over the place on both ends of the floor, active in the defense, the offense, and picking up his teammates at every turn. “PJ brings a lot of energy, and a lot of confidence, to the team. The guys pick up on that,” Dixon said. Nembhard added that PJ’s growth as a player is going to be the key to success for TCU this season. “Mentally maturing, that’s the biggest thing. Some guys don’t like criticism, don’t like to be told what to work on, but I talk to him a lot. I took him under my wing because I’ve been in position he is in,” he said. “He was in the dog house a bit, nothing of his own fault, so I’ve been keeping him upbeat, telling him coach sees how hard he’s working. It’s great to see his game evolve and all the young guys stepping up.”
The young guys stepped up, indeed; when the Frogs started out slow, it was freshman point guard Mike Miles that broke the slump, scoring the first six points for TCU on a pair of three pointers. He stayed hot in the first half, as he and Chuck O’Bannon carried the offense during the slow start of RJ Nembhard and Kevin Samuel. But it was the defensive effort that really got things done, according to Coach Dixon. “Defense was better, defense got offense going, defense was clearly the difference for us.” Miles agrees, explaining that having their toughness questioned ignited a fire under his team. “We definitely made a statement with this game. Our defense hasn’t been good — this game we wanted to show that our D is as good as our O. We wanted to prove something to everybody in the Big 12 and in the country.” The Frogs held the Aggies to just 25% shooting in the first half and 38% overall, and A&M made just 18 field goals over all in the game. TCU turned them over 20 times, turning into 19 points, and out-rebounded them 33-26.
Meanwhile, the TCU offense was efficient and unselfish, moving the ball well — something we have seen all season — but converting that great ball movement into good opportunities Saturday, and those good opportunities into points. Shooting 26-50 for the game and 10-23 from three, TCU got double-digit scoring from three players and scoring from eight of the nine that saw the court. The Frogs looked inside much more often Saturday, and though Samuel had only eight points on just five attempts, they used him to collapse the Aggie defense and create good looks for the guards. He touched the ball on the majority of the possessions, something that has been sorely lacking in the early goings of this season. He added nine rebounds and two assists, and added two blocks for good measure.
Though Francisco Farabello remains out due to COVID protocols, what we saw Saturday is much closer to what Jamie Dixon expected from his team heading into the year. “We haven’t been the team that I envisioned the last two weeks,” Dixon said. “But we were able to define some roles, able to play a little more like we want to play, a little more like how we envisioned things. It hasn’t come in the timing it would in a normal season, [but it’s getting there].”
Led by Nembhard’s 16 points, Miles’ 15, and Fuller’s 13, the Frogs got a balanced offensive attack against A&M. Chuck O’Bannon, whom Dixon said probably came back from his own ankle injury too early, was great as well, scoring eight points and picking up four rebounds. Kevin Easley Jr returned to the starting lineup and pit in 6/3, while Jaedon LeDee — who Dixon continues to rave about — had his biggest impact to date with four points, six rebounds, and aggressive defense.
Next up for the Frogs is a conference road date in Stillwater, where they will match up with likely one-and-done Cade Cunningham and the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Nembhard says his team looks forward to the matchup. “We love the challenge. We will be underdog more than likely, but we embrace that fact. We embraced that this game — people questioned our toughness and will to win, but we were ready to take the challenge on, and meet it head first.”