A nationally-televised marquee matchup against the defending champs and second ranked Kansas Jayhawks may not have been the ideal setting for looking to overcome a poorly contested loss to a team who had not yet won a Big 12 conference matchup, but that is exactly where the Horned Frogs found themselves Saturday at lunchtime. Perhaps TCU was looking ahead last Wednesday when they faced West Virginia, and while that loss could come back to haunt in the Big 12 standings later, maybe that look ahead was key to TCU finding their footing in college basketball’s toughest conference in route to a program defining win—one that may be the lynchpin of setting up a deep run in a couple of months.
We’ll take a look at each half shortly, but to sum it up: TCU dominated that game. The Frogs didn’t let earlier season weaknesses define them (poor shooting from three, poor halfcourt offensive possessions, giving up leads in second halves, etc.). Additionally, players who we’ve questioned their roles on the court and even on the team stepped up in a big way, and finally the team that we thought this squad could be this season actually showed up to play a complete basketball game. Mike Miles overcame a slow start, scoring 15 and 2-3 from deep, Eddie’s presence was felt (before and after his injury), Baugh and O’Bannon got the team going early—more on that momentarily—and the story of the game was the breakthrough of Wells and Walker, with Wells leading the team in scoring (17) and Walker providing key injections of energy and defense as the Frogs changed their Dixon-esque defensive tendencies in this game.
As expected the atmosphere in Allen Fieldhouse was raucous, with a loud crowd and as soon as Jalen Wilson drilled his first shot you could tell Kansas and their fans wanted to avenge the loss to K-State from earlier in the week. The problem: TCU had vengeance on their mind as well. Unexpectedly, TCU started the game stroking on the offensive end, not missing a shot until well into the first half, going 6-7 from the field to start the game and matching Kansas—really, just Wilson—blow for blow. Miles didn’t score early, but Baugh and Chuck O’Bannon teamed up to hit buckets. Even more surprisingly, among those first runs for TCU were connections from deep. TCU started the game 4-5 from three, ending the half at 6-9 for an excellent 67%.
While the teams traded blows early in the first half, it truly felt like TCU was scrapping to hang on until the inevitable Phog atmosphere (and the legendary whistle friendliness) kicked into gear. But, in the back portion of the first half, the tide shifted. Trading buckets gave way to empty possessions for Kansas. TCU’s ability to force turnovers, coupled with a stretch of four missed shot possessions from Kansas saw the Frogs jump out to a double-digit lead. The lead continued to swell as seemingly every shot for TCU dropped as a result of a missed shot or bad pass from Kansas. Amongst the run, TCU busted out a 1-2-2 full-court press that we had not seen really all season. This wrinkle is uncommon in a Dixon Defense, but it gave KU fits. TCU timed their trap at halfcourt well, forcing ill-advised passes, and it came to a head when KU tried to skirt the trap with an early reversal but Shahada Wells read the play, jumped in front of the pass, then punched a dunk for the highlight play of the half. Self was pulling out all the stops to get his team in the game, including a “fire them up” technical draw that did little more than get Mike Miles an early chance to see the ball go through and get him going.
Halftime: TCU 48 – 38
At the half, TCU had led by double digits, including 20+ points at a couple times, and it was a 10-point game, but the second half loomed. Even though we shot 60% from the field, created 10 KU turnovers, and held any Jayhawk not named Wilson in check, that’s as good as it could get right? Surely Kansas would come out swinging, the famous homecourt advantage would show it’s face, and TCU would do what TCU has done all season with a first half lead?
With Eddie suffering an ankle tweak that looked like a no-doubt grade 2+ sprain, it was going to be up to Coles and Cork to fill the gap and even with KU undersized at the 5-position this season, TCU fans who watched the team all season likely entered the second half with trepidation. However, the Frogs picked up where they left off, even with Kansas starting the scoring in the second half and renewed energy from the crowd, the team found a way to continue to score, get stops, and extend the 10-point lead to 15 by the first media timeout. From there, the “wave” never crested. TCU maintained the lead, and they did so by continuing to play “their” game. Dixon did not allow the team to pound the air out on offensive possessions. The defense maintained intensity and didn’t soften up (although the press was only used sparingly in the second half). While no one wanted to say it (at least not on Twitter), it seemed that we took them out of it and had the game locked up halfway through the second half of play. The lead swelled, TCU was up 20—when has anyone seen fans filing out of Allen Fieldhouse with that much time to play in a conference game?
When all was said and done, TCU swaggered out of Lawrence with a 23-point win that felt every bit the final score reflected the story of the game. TCU walked into Allen, a place the team was 0-11 all time, and acted like they owned the conference. Every piece of the game (save the turnover numbers; 15) was clicking: TCU did what their DNA prescribes: play hard-nosed defense to create turnovers (Kansas had 17), which finds ways to create fast break opportunities, and secure more rebounds than your opponent (TCU was +6). On top of that, the areas where TCU struggled all season were not weaknesses: TCU shot 55% from the field, including 8-15 from deep. The team ran intelligent and patient half court offense sets that yielded good shots either at the rim or open threes, and the team remained focused for the full 40-minutes, building on a first half lead—a 10 point lead turned to 15, then 20, then 25.
In the end, TCU avoids back-to-back conference losses, hangs a huge L on Kansas to give them back-to-back conference losses, keeps them near the top of the Big 12 conference standings, and maybe most importantly, shows themselves and others what this team can really be. If TCU continues to shoot the ball well and play smart offense, this could tee up a special run in March and prove to be the best TCU Basketball team we’ve seen on the court.
No game in the Big 12 is a cakewalk, so the gauntlet continues. TCU faces Oklahoma in Norman on Tuesday (7:00 PM on Big12/ESPN+), then faces Mississppi State in the Big 12/SEC showcase on Saturday afternoon (3:00 PM on ESPN2).