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Midweek Musing: What do we do with TCU Basketball?

Five years into Jamie Dixon’s tenure at TCU, it feels like the program has taken two steps back for every step forward. With a long offseason ahead, it’s time to reevaluate where the program should be.

NCAA Basketball: West Virginia at Texas Christian Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It was only two years ago — though it feels like a veritable lifetime — that I was sitting in a New York hotel room, the day after TCU Basketball’s season ended in the NIT at Madison Square Garden, prewriting pieces about Jamie Dixon’s departure from Fort Worth. Rumors were swirling that day that UCLA was pursuing the veteran head coach for their open position, and home was calling the man that was rebuilding Horned Frog hoops one victory at a time.

TCU fans lamented the impending departure: Dixon had won one NIT Championship and taken the Horned Frogs into March Madness for the first time in two decades. He was recruiting at a high level, getting donors and fans invested, and making TCU Basketball relevant for the first time in years. Losing him would be a disaster for a program that was on the cusp on being taken seriously in one of the toughest college basketball conferences in the country.

We all know what happened next.

Jeremiah Donati and Victor Boschini put the full-court press on their prodigal son, keeping Dixon and his staff in Funky Town. How it actually went down is up to interpretation: TCU reportedly refused to lower Dixon’s $8 million buyout for the Bruins, but, according to the man himself, “they took care of the buyout,” Dixon said. “I had the option to go. I could do what I wanted to do. ... I had the opportunity to go and I stayed so that should be the story.”

Though Dixon has often referred to TCU as “his dream job”, having aging parents in Southern California and the opportunity to take over one of the sport’s true Blue Blood programs was certainly tempting. But TCU fans were hurt by the flirtation: having suffered a program whose ceiling for so long was maybe upsetting a ranked team once every two years, the thought of playing deep into March annually built up so much excitement only to be on the brink of disappearing. Possibly forever.

Two years later, though, we are in no better place than we were before. Pandemic season aside, this program is no better off than it was at the end of its last postseason run; a slough of transfers, two seasons of disappointing results, and a the first losing record of Jamie Dixon’s career have folks firing up the hot seat.

In an alternate timeline where Jamie Dixon bolted for the Bruins, are we any better off than we are today? Back in 2019, the list of potential replacements was highlighted by TCU assistant Scott Cross, and included a handful of mid-major options or potentially Mick Cronin (another top candidate at UCLA at the time, who would eventually be their choice — and just let them to a Final Four). The question becomes, would one of those options have TCU in a better place today than Jamie Dixon does?

TCU lost its entire 2018 recruiting class: Kaden Archie has transferred twice, landing first at UTEP and now at Georgia Southern, averaging 7.8 points in 22 minutes per game, Yuat Alok went from Chipola Community College to TCU to UCF to Southern Utah and now Coppin State — and hasn’t played in a game since 2019 — and Russell Barlow has played just 18 minutes this season for California Baptist, a school not far removed from playing in the NAIA. Of the four, only Kendric Davis is contributing to a major program, averaging 17.7 points and 4.1 rebounds per game and being named to the AAC All-Conference despite the Mustangs’ program taking a 32 day COVID break.

There’s lessons to be learned from that quartet, both in the culture of a program and the program’s ability to identify and recruit talent that fits its place in college basketball. All four of those players were highly rated as high school prospects, but only Davis can make a claim that he was a Big 12 caliber player. The others? Based on what has happened since they left Fort Worth, you can assume that they were misses by the staff when it comes to whether or not that were Power Five caliber players when they were signed.

Jamie Dixon was hired in March of 2016, and immediately hit the recruiting trail. He is credited with signing Jaylen Fisher and Kouat Noi — both of whom would leave the program before their eligibility expired — and of course Desmond Bane, who became TCU’s first NBA First Round pick since Kurt Thomas in 1995 and the first selection period since Lee Nailon in ‘99. He was truly developed under Dixon and co, coming in as a two star prospect and leaving with a skillset that is putting him on the Rookie of the Year ballot in the League.

Of the players Dixon has recruited since, only RJ Nembhard and Kevin Samuel (class of 2017), PJ Fuller (class of 2019), and Mike Miles (class of 2020) have consistently broached the starting lineup, while nine of the 17 players signed and enrolled between 2017-2019 having exited the program entirely, including Mickey Pearson, who announced his intent to leave this week. Dixon has been markedly better in the transfer market, where Jadeon LeDee (Ohio State), Kevin Easley (UT Chattanooga), and Chuck O’Bannon (USC) have looked, at worst, to be solid contributors in their first and second true seasons with the team. The jury on the 2020 group — outside of Miles — is still out, as it’s nearly impossible to judge the true and redshirt freshmen on a season so heavily impacted by COVID-induced pauses and scheduling issues.

And with Monday’s announcement by RJ Nembhard that he is entering the 2021 NBA Draft... things certainly look bleaker than they did the day before.

The Frogs have just one signee in the 2021 class, Souleymane Doumbia, a juco center with great defensive talent but one that is a clear project on the offensive end of the floor. In theory, he could complement what could be an roster comprised entirely of returning players, anchored by a redshirt senior in Samuel, and with guys like Miles, Kevin Easley, and Taryn Todd having a full Big 12 season under their belts and Fuller, LeDee, and (hopefully) Farabello aging into veteran leaders. A rotation of Samuel, Miles, Fuller, O’Bannon, Todd, Farabello, Easley, LeDee, and Doumbia after a full — and semi-normal — offseason should be far more competitive than they were this year... but also, that’s pretty much the same group that went 13-14 and were utterly embarrassed in the Big 12 Tournament — minus their best offensive player. One of my favorite Gary Patterson-isms is “the good news is, we bring pretty much everyone back. The bad news is — we bring pretty much everyone back.” That certainly rings true here.

What would “not Jamie Dixon” have done with last year’s team? Would a different coach have gotten more out Bane’s final season? Would they have been able to keep some of these transfers around or brought in a better class in the fall of 2019? Would they have handled COVID differently or been able to overcome the challenges of this season better than what we saw?

For all those that say “we should have let Dixon leave”, would TCU Basketball really be better off if we had?

This isn’t Remedial Chaos Theory and I don’t have a six-sided die, so there’s no way to predict which direction the Horned Frogs would be headed if we were in a different timeline. Like all programs, TCU Basketball was hit hard by COVID — but to hear it from those inside, they may have been hit hardest when it comes to practice time and players out. Taking that into account, as well as the fact that Dixon didn’t have a true scholarship senior on the roster, and that the athletic department took enough financial hits this past year (I don’t like the optics of asking employees to take a paycut while simultaneously paying someone to NOT be employed by your company), it makes sense to go all in on 2021-2022. But I think a “Tournament or Bust” year is fair, and if the Frogs fall short of March Madness once again, especially after 7/10 teams made it into the field this spring, beginning the heating up of the seat is certainly reasonable.

I like Jamie Dixon a ton as a person and a coach, and still believe that he inherited a program that was so deep into dysfunction that five years is about the right time to raise the ceiling. And I certainly want Coach Dixon to be the one to do it.

But at the end of the day, TCU Basketball has too many opportunities to be good to not actually be, well, good. Let’s hope that we see that corner turn come November, and that Jamie Dixon steers the team the right direction.