TCU basketball sits at 6-1 after last Thursday’s 71-63 win over Oral Roberts. It’s the fifth time in Jamie Dixon’s six seasons at the helm that the Frogs have started 6-1 or better. Part of the reason for the good start in 2021 is junior Texas A&M transfer Emanuel Miller.
The 6-foot-7 forward has been an instant spark for the new-look Frogs, recording double doubles in the first two games of the season and providing endless amounts of hustle. That’s the biggest part of his game, according to Miller.
“The most important aspect of my game is just impacting winning,” Miller told me in an interview last week. “There’s not one category I want to focus on. Anything I can do to impact winning in a positive way is what I want to do. If I have to sacrifice my body, if I have to do the things that other people aren’t willing to do, I think I’m just that person.”
That mentality shows up in his stat line. Miller is currently second on the team in scoring, averaging 10.7 points per game on 44.4% shooting from the floor. He leads the team in rebounding, pulling down 7.6 boards per game, and steals, with 10 through seven games. He’s also second on the team in blocks with five.
“That’s the way I grew up. I grew up a hard worker, and I just want to do anything so our team has a chance to succeed.”
Originally from Scarborough, Ontario, Miller’s friends and family influenced his love of basketball.
“Basketball is a very developing thing occurring in Canada. Instead of taking that traditional route of playing hockey and baseball, why not basketball? My brothers played, my cousins, my friends played, my family played, and I’ve just been around basketball my whole life. I just wanted to be part of the process.”
A part of the process he has been, too. Miller has represented Canada in multiple world tournaments, including at the 2018 FIBA U18 Americas Championship, where he averaged over 17 points per game and recorded 31 points and 14 rebounds in a semifinal game against Puerto Rico.
Miller was also an integral piece of Canada’s gold-medal run in the 2017 FIBA U19 World Cup held in Egypt. Playing for his home country is a particular point of pride Miller.
“Anytime I have the opportunity to wear those big Canada letters across my chest, I think it’s one of the best feelings in the world. To be able to play on such a big stage, supporting your country, playing for your country. Having the chance to even do that is such a great opportunity.”
So how does a Canadian national phenom and 4-star recruit wind up in Fort Worth? Well, it’s a winding road that involved a handful of coaching changes and a culture appeal.
Miller originally committed to Virginia Tech and head coach Buzz Williams in October of 2018. He was recruited heavily by assistant coach Jamie McNeilly, an integral part of Williams’ staff all the way back to his days at Marquette.
It also just so happens that McNeilly was a coach on the same gold-medal winning Canadian national team on which Miller was a contributor.
So when Williams left Virginia Tech to take the Texas A&M job and McNeilly followed, it only made sense that Miller would follow too.
On the court down in College Station, Miller asserted himself almost immediately. He started 25 games as a freshman. As a sophomore he led the Aggies in scoring (16.2 ppg) and rebounding (8.2 rpg) while shooting over 57% from the floor. That shooting percentage was good for best in the SEC as well.
“Being at Texas A&M for the past two years, it was great,” Miller said of his time with the Aggies.
“College Station is always going to be a part of me, a part of who I am. They helped me into the person I am, how I’m performing right now. I’m very grateful for my time there.”
So why does the leading scorer of an SEC team decide to transfer? TCU’s culture, the way student-athletes support each other, and the fanbase all played a role. It also didn’t hurt that McNeilly took a job on Jamie Dixon’s staff, an opening created when Ryan Miller left to go to Creighton.
“There was a big coaching change,” Miller told me. That change took place when Buzz Williams said that McNeilly wouldn’t be returning to the Aggies this season. With his main coaching connection heading somewhere else, Miller started looking around.
In late April of this year Miller landed on TCU. Just a week later, TCU hired McNeilly as an assistant coach.
“Jamie McNeilly, he’s here at [TCU], and the chemistry and the connection we have, I just thought that it was in my best decision just to come to TCU.”
While McNeilly is clearly a major influence on Miller, TCU attracted Miller for other reasons too.
“Even if [McNeilly didn’t come to TCU], I did a lot of research on TCU and just the history, the culture, just the fanbase that supported this school, I thought it was the perfect fit for me.”
This isn’t the first time Miller has been asked about why he transferred to TCU. After TCU’s season opening win, Miller responded to a question about his transfer with, “Why not TCU?”
It seems to be a running theme in Miller’s life. When asked why, he asks, “why not?” Why not basketball in a country where the best athletes typically grow up to play hockey and baseball? Why not come to TCU and see if you can help get the program over the hump?
Miller has mentioned TCU’s culture multiple times this year as being a big reason he chose the Frogs. When asked about specifics, Miller had this to say.
“The atmosphere. It’s something you don’t see at a lot of schools. I’ve been to a lot of schools, played against a lot of schools in the SEC, and when I come here, the culture is just unmatched.”
Couple that with the fact that the student-athletes support each other at TCU, and Miller loves the move.
“If I look in the stands, and look to my left, I see volleyball. I look to my right, I see football. I look straight ahead, I’m going to see baseball. All these athletes just want to see everyone succeed and I think it’s just great.”
Miller said he’s been to multiple football games this fall, and that he’s looking forward to baseball season. He also made sure to mention TCU Soccer’s run to the Sweet 16 as he detailed what he called a “winning culture.”
“I just think we have a winning culture here and I think just want to add on to it.”
So far, Miller has done just that. He’s not the only new face on TCU’s basketball team, which saw eight players transfer in between last season and this year. New faces came from all over the place, including Texas Tech (Micah Peavy), Memphis (Damion Baugh), Vanderbilt (Max Evans), Butler (Jakobe Coles) Western Carolina (Xavier Cork), UTA (Shahada Wells), and Miller from A&M.
What has it been like trying to get to know all these new faces and find some on-court chemistry?
“It’s crazy,” Miller said with a laugh. “When you have eight guys transfer into a school there’s a lot of things that could happen. It could go very south, or it could trend towards a positive direction. I think we took that positive direction route and we’re trying to make it go well beyond what people’s expectations were.”
At 6-1, TCU is handling their non-conference schedule well - even with some guys banged up. The Frogs are an aggressive, athletic bunch that rebound well and play good defense. They pull down 43 rebounds per game, and over 16 offensive boards per game (good for third in the country), but their shooting desperately needs to catch up.
The Frogs are 195th in the country scoring 71.6 points per game on just 42.4% shooting. They’re particularly bad from three, hitting less than 30% of their shots. Only two Frogs - Chuck O’Bannon and Jakobe Coles - are shooting higher than 35% from three.
Against Oral Roberts, TCU was at their most effective offensively when they pushed the tempo and forced ORU to defend in transition. However, most of TCU’s possessions are in half-court sets that are far less effective.
For Miller and Co., they know what their strengths are, and what they need to work on.
“Biggest strength, I would say rebounding. We really emphasize rebounding and dominating the glass, and getting out in transition and trying to run. I think that’s going to be one of our strengths no matter what game we play.”
“We always have to continue to dominate the glass, we have to continue to play hard.”
“I think where we need to work on is transition, pushing the ball ahead. Playing freely, running out and trying to get the easy buckets as fast as possible.”
What I do know is this - through the first seven games TCU has gone largely the way Miller has led them, alongside Mike Miles and Damion Baugh. The Frogs’ lone loss coincides with Miller’s worst shooting performance and lowest rebounding output.
TCU has five non-conference games left, including games against Utah, Texas A&M, and Georgetown, to fine tune the offense before they hit the ground running in Big 12 play. Their first conference matchup? At Kansas on New Year’s Day.
The Big 12 preseason poll projected TCU to finish 8th in the ten team league, ahead of Kansas State and Iowa State. Miller thinks they can outpace that projection.
“I think with the tools we have on this team and the pieces, and the way we blend together I think we have more than the capability of finishing at the top of this league.”
He understands the extent of the challenge, with the Big 12 being arguably the toughest conference in the country, top to bottom. The conference has had six or seven teams make the NCAA Tournament every season since 2017, a higher percentage than any other conference.
Miller understands that that is largely in part due to the level of talent across the conference.
“No offense to any other players we play, but Big 12 is the best league in the world. I think so, my teammates think so, my coaches think so, and I think playing against these players on such a high platform, on this stage is going to be one of the best feelings.”
If Miller can help TCU grind it out through an intense conference slate and get back to the NCAA Tournament, it’ll be one of the best feelings for sure.