As you would expect for a school promoted to the Big 12 solely on the basis of its football program, TCU's basketball program has struggled mightily in their first two seasons in the conference. As a middling program in the Mountain West, the Frogs just didn't have the personnel to compete on a nightly basis in one of the top conferences in the country. Jim Christian, their previous coach, could see the way the wind was blowing, leaving for Ohio U in 2013 rather than sticking around to be fired in the Big 12.
To replace Christian, TCU brought in Trent Johnson, the former Nevada and Stanford coach who hadn't gained much traction in four up-and-down seasons at LSU. While he would have to start from ground zero in Fort Worth, the depth of the rebuilding project meant he would get a free pass for a few seasons, which is pretty good job security for a high-major coach without a huge brand name. Johnson had to look at what Larry Brown has been able to do at SMU* and think it wouldn't be too hard to turn the program around.
* Insert joke about NCAA violations here.
He took his lumps in his first two seasons - going 2-34 in Big 12 play including an 0-16 mark last season - but the Frogs appear to have started turning the corner this season. The first class of players recruited to play in the Big 12 are sophomores while a few transfers from other high-major programs have given the program some much needed depth. Combine that with the few remaining holdovers from the Christian era who could actually play ball at this level and TCU suddenly has a half-way decent team.
They took advantage of a soft non-conference schedule to get out to a 14-0 start to the season, although they do have one quality win on their resume - a 12 point road win at Ole Miss (who took Kentucky to OT in Rupp a few weeks ago). And while they are only 1-3 in Big 12 play, they have been competitive in all their games. They lost by 9 to West Virginia, by 5 at Kansas State and Baylor needed OT to close them out. They are coming off their first conference win in over a year, a 20-point curb stomping at Texas Tech on Saturday.
In conference play, where the margins become a lot tighter, the mark of a good team is the ability to put away the bad ones as much as it is competing with other good teams. My guess is by the end of the season that TCU will be a lot closer to the Top 8 teams in the conference than Tech, who appears to have taken up sole residence in the Big 12 cellar. If the Frogs can scrape out 5-6 wins in conference play, they have a decent chance of playing in the NIT, which would be a huge boost for the program going forward.
Their biggest liability might be their home stadium, a 6,000 seat Fort Worth ISD gym they are using this season while renovating Amon Carter. Since most Big 12 schools have a huge alumni base in the Metroplex, it shouldn't be too hard for opposing fans to take over the Wilkerson-Greines Athletic Center, located 10-15 minutes off campus on I-20. Given how apathetic the Texas fanbase can be, I'm really not sure what to expect when it comes to the atmosphere tonight. One thing we should expect is a good basketball game - Vegas only has us as -3.5 point favorites.
PG - Kyan Anderson (5'11 175) - A senior PG who knows how to play the game and who should give TCU a fighting chance in most of their Big 12 games this season. He's not particularly big, athletic or flashy, but he's a really steady veteran who can control tempo, set up his teammates and score from the perimeter. Anderson is averaging 14 points, 4 assists and 1.5 steals a game on 46% shooting and he will have the ball in his hands late. There isn't a lot of depth behind him, so getting him in foul trouble would be the easiest way to blow this game open.
SG - Trey Zeigler (6'5 200) - A fifth-year senior who spent two seasons starring at Central Michigan for his father before transferring to Pittsburgh for one year and then moving on to TCU. He's a professional basketball player in the sense that he's a guy in his early 20's who has been around the block a few times and isn't going to be intimidated by the moment. Zeigler is their glue guy - he averages 9 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists a game on 48% shooting and he can do a little bit of everything besides shoot 3's.
SF - Kenrich Williams (6'7 195) - A junior college transfer who has emerged as one of TCU's main sources for offense on the perimeter. A long and athletic wing who can slide between multiple positions on defense, Williams is averaging 8 points and 6 rebounds a game on 58% shooting. Like a lot of the Frogs players, Williams is a bit of a reluctant three-point shooter, having taken only 12 this season.
PF - Chris Washburn (6'8 240) - A transfer from UTEP with a surprising amount of skill and athleticism for a guy with his size. He's not afraid to mix it up around the basket, but he's also capable of stepping out on the perimeter and playing out of the high post. Washburn doesn't play a ton of minutes, but he is a stat-sheet stuffer who can get you points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks on a given night.
C - Kaviar Shepherd (6'10 225) - The "franchise player" in Forth Worth, Shepherd was the jewel of Johnson's first recruiting class, a Top 50 recruit from Prime Prep who surprised many when he decided to stay home rather than go to schools like Kansas, OU and Texas. Shepherd plays like a bigger version of Darrell Arthur, another Dallas product who spent two seasons in Kansas before embarking on an NBA career. He's big, he's mobile and he's fairly skilled - if he can extend his range out to the three-point line, he's going to make a lot of money at the next level. Like with a lot of talented young big men, the key with Shepherd is to attack him early and see if he will commit a few stupid fouls.
PG - Chauncey Collins (6'0 180) - The freshman guard was a home-school guy who never got much traction in recruiting circles, but he has stepped into a major role at TCU right away. He's coming off one of the best games of his career - 10 points and 2 assists on 4 shots against Tech - and if he can consistently give them offense off the bench, it will be a major boost for TCU.
C - Devonte Abron (6'8 255) - Another big-bodied transfer, Abron is a local kid who returned home after one up-and-down season at Arkansas. A bit of a bull in a china shop, his job is to play with an edge and bring some physicality into the game when he comes in off the bench.
PF - Amric Fields (6'9 225) - A fifth-year senior who has seen his playing time cut dramatically this season, Fields has seen his numbers fall across the board after averaging 13 points and 6 bounds a game as a junior. He's a fairly skilled player who can put the ball on the floor and play as a stretch 4, but his three-point shot (22%) has abandoned him this season.
SG - Hudson Price (6'6 200) - Price comes into the game for one reason, as he shoots 39% from 3 and takes 5.5 3PA's per-40 minutes. TCU may use a zone to try and hide him on defense, since they desperately need his ability to stretch the floor. We could really use a guy like this on our roster.
Keys to the Game:
1) How does TCU defend Texas? It's probably not a coincidence that our best offensive performance in Big 12 play came against a West Virginia team that extended their defense for 94 feet in order to pressure our guards instead of laying back in a zone and daring us to beat them from the perimeter. I don't imagine we'll see many other teams in conference try Bob Huggins game-plan against us this season. If Johnson has been paying attention, tonight's game should give us a good idea of whether he have turned the corner on offense.
2) Can Texas control the game with defense? On paper, this is the kind of match-up that a Rick Barnes team should thrive in, as we have an edge in size and athleticism at pretty much every position on the floor. If we can turn over TCU and get easy points going defense to offense, it should take a lot of pressure off our half-court offense and allow us to play from ahead for most of the game.
3) Kyan Anderson and Kaviar Shepherd. If TCU pulls the upset, it's probably going to be the result of big games from their two best players, guys who would have no problem getting major minutes if they were playing for Texas. Conversely, if Texas is able to pull away, it's likely going to be because we shut down their two main sources of offense in the half-court. Foul trouble could be an absolutely huge factor in the outcome tonight.
Don't be fooled by TCU's history or reputation. This is a good basketball team who should provide a real test. They are going to pull off at least one big upset at home this season - hopefully it won't be us.
The game is at 6:00 PM Central on ESPNU.