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The TCU men’s basketball team celebrates its first NCAA tournament bid in this century. Courtesy of TCU Athletics

He Got Game, Can’t Hardly Wait, and Hope Floats –– are they the feelings of TCU men’s basketball players and fans? Perhaps, but they’re also the titles of movies that were popular the last time the Frogs penciled their name on the NCAA tournament dance card back in 1998.

The Frogs failed to appear in the tournament last year. Instead, they fought through the National Invitation Tournament to a runaway championship victory over Georgia Tech at Madison Square Garden. This year’s Frogs focused on an NCAA tournament appearance throughout the season. Receiving an at-large bid is no small accomplishment for a team that has appeared only in three NITs and one NCAA tournament over the past 20 years.

Tournament talk has permeated social media and Big 12 message boards all season, but coach Jamie Dixon is heading back to the tournament at record speed. The Horned Hype kicked off early with an impressive 12-game winning streak to start the season that halted at the free-throw line in a one-point loss to conference rival Oklahoma, who are also lurking in the Midwest region. 

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The 21-11 Frogs were competitive even in defeat this season, their losses being by only a combined 60 points, 16 of those to West Virginia. TCU’s only loss outside of the conference was by three points to Vanderbilt back in January. The year before Dixon arrived, the Frogs won only two conference games. That number improved to six in Dixon’s first year, and this year they had nine wins, good enough for a .500 record in conference play.

Signature wins were difficult to come by this season for the Frogs, but they proved their fortitude by being a horn in the side (so to speak) of physically larger and more talented teams, refusing to concede defeat until the buzzer. The marquee win this season was a nine-point home victory over then-15th-ranked West Virginia on January 22. 

It seems that the selection committee might have used TCU as the cutoff line for Big 12 teams in the NCAA tournament. Baylor, Oklahoma State, and Iowa State were winless against the Frogs this season. Consequently, none of them were invited to be in the field of 68 teams. The Texas Longhorns should be retroactively elated by their single-point victory over TCU in Austin, as it might have catapulted them into the tourney. Baylor was part of the dreaded “first four out,” making them the first Baylor squad in five years to miss the Big Dance. This would be an acceptable time to laugh about actual organized dances being forbidden on Baylor’s campus until 1996.

The Big 12 conference received praise for being the deepest hoop group in the country throughout the season, yet the selection committee seemed to disagree when making its picks, selecting nine teams from the ACC and eight teams to represent the SEC. The Big 12 is sending seven teams, the most notable being conference champion Kansas as the Midwest’s 1-seed.

The biggest surprise/not-surprise was the selection of the Oklahoma Sooners over Oklahoma State and Baylor. The Cowboys beat the in-state rival Sooners in two of their three contests this season and finished with the same conference record, but college basketball fans likely expected that ESPN darling Trae Young’s star power would elevate Oklahoma over other possible selections. The exciting freshman point guard is a coveted one-and-done draft choice and dazzles teams with his ability and willingness to shoot the ball from pretty much anywhere and make those shots most of the time. This also explains the Sooners’ inconsistency this season, and as any seasoned coach or commentator will remind you, “live by the 3-ball, die by the 3-ball.”

The question all season remained: Can TCU get an invitation to the tournament to legitimize them as an actual contender? The selection committee showed the Horned Frogs respect by placing them as a 6-seed, which will face the 11-seed in the Midwest region. Their dance partner is … complicated. TCU is one of four teams in the field of 68 who will tip off against the winner of a play-in game. As soon as the euphoria from Selection Sunday wears off, the reality is sobering for the Frogs in a stacked Midwest region as they prepare to face either Arizona State or Syracuse.

Though they finished in the bottom halves of their conferences, ASU and Syracuse are very different teams with recent experience in the tournament and enough quality to serve as dangerous opponents. The Sun Devils are appearing in their fourth tournament in the last 20 years and were the hotter of these two teams early in the season. ASU has less program cachet than Syracuse but beat 1-seeds Xavier and Kansas. Despite their inconsistency, the Sun Devils can run off points in bunches. Sun Devils against Frogs would be offense against offense, with the Frogs enjoying a slight edge in offensive efficiency and rebounding.

Meanwhile, the Orange have competed 15 times in the last 20 years, twice as a 1-seed, and are riding their pedigree into this tournament. The team helped their cause with a late-season victory over then-20th-ranked Clemson in their final regular-season ACC game. A defense-first team, Syracuse will play a stingy zone and force the Horned Frogs to hit outside shots and won’t be flustered by the stage or the moment.

The Midwest Region is an absolute war zone this year, and the Frogs have landed in the crossfire. Reality will come into play for the Frogs as they face teams with greater size and experience. It would be impressive to see these young Frogs scrap their way through the first round. Their first tip-off will take place in Detroit on Friday at 8:40 p.m. our time inside Little Caesars Arena. Should the men in purple win against ASU/Syracuse, they’ll be greeted in the next round by the winner of Michigan State-Bucknell. Yes, MSU should be a 1-seed, but the NCAA wants an easy way to punish them for Larry Nassar’s crimes and coach Tom Izzo’s alleged infractions, so the Spartans are fuming next door as a 3-seed after being a top-ranked team all year. Duke will likely be waiting as the 2-seed on the other side of the bracket, ready to hammer 10-seed Oklahoma if the Sooners manage to beat their first-round opponent, Rhode Island. The Frogs are dancing with the stars in the Midwest region, and if they make it to the Sweet 16, it would be a great underdog story all on its own.

The Big 12’s best chance at a championship run, outside of 1-seed Kansas, has to be 3-seed Texas Tech in the East region. The Red Raiders wouldn’t have to play 1-seed Villanova until the Elite 8 and should waltz through opening opponent Stephen F. Austin. That would likely lead them to a round-2 bout with Florida and a possible round-3 contest with Purdue, both stout opponents but winnable matchups.

The takeaway is that despite the tough road that the Horned Frogs will face, making the tournament is assurance that TCU men’s basketball has arrived with Jamie Dixon. Fans should also be thankful that guests in the stands are now professional scouts and not curious FBI agents that have started “heavily scouting” other prominent teams. 

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