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TCU Basketball Weekly Preview: Return from COVID

The Frogs (hopefully) return to the court after a two week layoff

TCU Basketball vs PVAMU | Fort Worth, TX (12.30.20) Melissa Triebwasser

Well, it’s been awhile hasn’t it? After a game against West Virginia was cancelled due to COVID within the Mountaineers program, TCU had its first major outbreak and has cancelled three straight games. Coach Jamie Dixon was among those to test positive, and he remains questionable to travel to Lawrence per Drew Davison of the Fort Worth Star Telegram. Whether Coach Dixon makes the trip or not, it appears as though it’s game on for the Frogs.

While it’s great to have basketball back, the Frogs are in a tough spot beyond their virus-related issues. They are in the midst of a brutal three game losing streak, losing by an average of 28 points a contest. Nothing seems to be going right, and a trip to the toughest arena in the Big 12 probably isn’t a panacea. That being said, Kansas is mired in a three game losing streak of their own. Granted all three games have been on the road, it is unfamiliar territory for the Jayhawks under Bill Self. That being said, Kansas’s 29 point demolition of the Frogs in Fort Worth is an ominous indicator of the gap between the teams. Between a trip to KU and a trip to Knoxville to play #6 Tennessee in the Big 12/SEC challenge, it’s tough to see how the Frogs turn it around before they host Kansas State next Tuesday. So let’s take a look at what has been going wrong for the Frogs.

A Look at the Stats...

If you have any small children around or have a weak stomach, you might want to avert your eyes from what I’m about to show you. These are the individual stats for the Frogs over the three game losing streak:

Now the boxscore never tells the whole story of any player or team, but it can provide a 3000 foot view of the problems. And oh boy is this boxscore ugly. As a collective, the Frogs have shot ghastly 38/32/56 splits. Their assist to turnover ratio is 0.7. Opponents are shooting just under 50% from the field including just under 40% from three. The rebounding, assist, and turnover disparities are stunning. On an individual basis, plenty of guys are in cold spells. Breakout freshman Mike Miles has struggled from the floor, while PJ Fuller has only made one field goal in ten attempts. RJ Nembhard’s efficiency has plummeted and his turnovers have risen, while Kevin Samuel is averaging a paltry ten attempts per 36 minutes. All in all, the numbers are brutal across the board.

Advanced stats aren’t much kinder. The Frogs have plummeted from 63rd to 96th in the KenPom rankings over the course of this losing streak, threatening to end up outside the top 100 for the first time at any point in the Dixon era. The Frogs’ conference offensive and defensive ratings rank 8th and 10th respectively, positioning them as one of the bottom three teams in the Big 12 ahead of Iowa State and Kansas State. They play at one of the slowest paces in the conference, yet give up possessions via turnovers (8th in conference at turnover rate) and missed shots in close (47.6% on 2 pointers is 9th in conference).

Impatience on Offense

When you look at the film, you see the problems you would expect with a young team. Dixon likes to run a lot of four out action, with either Kevin Samuel or Jaedon LeDee starting just outside the paint with everyone else on the perimeter. Most of the action either comes from a high screen + roll or a downscreen from Samuel/LeDee to free up a wing to receive the ball by the three point line. This can produce nice open shots through motion offense, either through dribble penetration that forces help or deep post position from the roll man. However, watch what happens when that initial action is gummed up, either through a high hedge that disrupts the ball handlers’ drive or a bad angle on a potential post entry pass. The ball sticks, and we usually end up with iso ball. Guys try to dribble drive one-on-one and end up with long, contested two pointers. The problem also seems to occur after a series of missed open shots; despite getting good looks, there is some discouragement when the ball doesn’t find the bottom of the net. This is not player specific, basically every guard from Nembhard to Miles to Fuller has this problem. It makes sense for this to happen given how young the team is, but hopefully continued drilling of the offense can stop some of this stagnation.

Mish Mash on Defense

The TCU defense is something of an enigma. Individual possessions we can look like absolute world beaters on that end: our athletic young guys preventing any penetration with a solid inside presence scaring everyone away. Yet too often the defense seems to short circuit. This is largely a problem in two key areas: rotations and closeouts. We seem to get confused about pick and roll coverage at points in the game, with the weakside guys completely locked into their man and the two defenders on the PnR not communicating effectively. Out closeouts can tend to send the defense into panic mode, giving up wide open dunks or three pointers. The read I get from the past few games is that the defense is solid when everything is going right, but when one aspect breaks down we aren’t yet to the point where we can improvise effectively. This is another marker of a young team, but it is exacerbated by such a talented conference.

The Upshot

Things are dire right now in Fort Worth. Between COVID and the embarrassing blowouts of the last three games, it can be easy to only talk about the negatives. But for as much as this team has struggled, we have already seen glimpses of what they can be. Mike Miles is a special talent who is going through the first rough patch of his young career; the guy is a baller who will be a future leader on this team. RJ Nembhard’s offseason improvement didn’t just vanish overnight, and it makes sense to expect he’ll bounce back. This team is young and wasn’t expected to make much noise at all; if anything, we’ve been treated to some pleasant surprises such as the win in Stillwater. Additionally, we don’t know how much COVID, whether through direct side effects or off the court stress, is affecting any of these guys. If this past year has taught us anything, it’s to be grateful that we get to watch our favorite teams hit the court at all. That’s not to say there are no problems or things to criticize, I pretty clearly outlined the issues above, but to keep things in perspective in this strange strange year. All this comes back to the upcoming week: will the Frogs beat KU or Tennessee? It’s a tall ask, but stranger things have happened. In a year where Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, and other blue bloods are struggling, who’s to say the Frogs can’t cause a little chaos of their own.