Between prognosticating bowls games, and the departure of football’s Sonny Cumbie for Lubbock, I’ll admit I’ve been only casually watching Frog basketball during the last six weeks they’ve been playing. A cursory glance predating last week would leave onlookers with the typical warm fuzzies that accompany the beginning of basketball season as coach Jamie Dixon’s roundballers beat up on their non-conference opponents. The Frogs won their first four tips before a home skid starting with an always frustrating four-point loss to Oklahoma — which for some reason is Dixon’s conference kryptonite — and ending with an eight-point defeat against Providence.
Dixon’s ballers won their next five games, including conference victories at Oklahoma State and Kansas State. TCU also beat Texas A&M at Schollmaier Arena in convincing fashion, but since then we’ve encountered the tip of the spear in conference play. Last week was a collective blowout, starting with an uninspired 29-point loss while hosting sixth-ranked Kansas and a similarly lackadaisical loss at home against Baylor in which the purple and white couldn’t log 50 points for the first time this season.
A deeper dive into TCU’s schedule reveals this squad wasn’t nearly as dominant over their early opponents as in past seasons. Close tilts against Tulsa, Liberty, and NW State don’t create the impression this crew was or is expected to topple the Big 12 basketball hierarchy.
As we’ve discussed in relation to football many times, performances this year should be considered out of the normal phase progression due to practice interruptions and tournament changes dating back to last season.
Fort Worth’s finest are a young crew this year. Former Frog leader Desmond Bane is hooping it up for the Memphis Grizzlies, and Dixon has lost other would-be upperclassmen to European or Asian professional careers and transfers. His primary pieces this season are returning juniors RJ Nembhard (#22) and Kevin Samuel (#21).
Nembhard — who oscillates between point and shooting guard — is flourishing and light years ahead of his freshman self, where the twitchy Keller native often seemed to be moving too fast for his brain to keep pace. His maturation has materialized as he’s taken on the role of primary scorer for the Toads and is tied for leading conference scorer.
Nembhard has always brought dynamism, but there’s less wince for fans now when he handles the ball, which is simply a nod to his advancement within Dixon’s system. Nembhard is also shooting the fifth-best field goal percentage and has the sixth-most assists among conference competitors.
Samuel, on the other hand, is busy doing the opposite sorts of things as his classmate. The 6-11 center should be renamed “Facebook,” because he blocks with impunity. Samuel leads the conference in number of rejections by double anyone else and boasts the most offensive rebounds. The big man has the second-most defensive rebounds and is in the Top 10 for steals.
The most prominent newcomer among these Frogs is freshman Mike Miles (#1), a four-star guard from Lancaster. Miles is lurking around the Top 15 in many scoring categories in the conference and is developing quickly into an exciting scoring point-guard.
The expectation for Dixon and company shouldn’t be, and aren’t realistically, to win the conference. The Big 12 — as it often is — is a murderous row of basketball powers. There are currently five Top-20 ranked crews. Texas and Baylor are fourth and second, respectively, and Kansas lurks just behind at sixth. West Virginia is currently 14, and the Raiders from Lubbock 18. Add to those, Dixon has beaten Oklahoma only twice — once in his first meeting as head coach and later that season in the conference tourney — creating quite a climb for a team that is retooling with two junior leaders.
Expectations in Fort Worth remain lofty even if they shouldn’t be. Fanatics are never known for waiting, and patience in college hoops is especially elusive in a sport where the best players might star for only one season before dribbling their talents to the draft. I’m warning diehard roundballers to be deferential to Dixon. He is fielding the best teams Schollmaier has ever seen. The truth is making the NCAA tournament while competing in a conference in which half the teams are shoe-ins is an unenviable position for even the best coach. Dixon and company have already beaten two unranked rivals and are sitting 2-4 in games that matter.
This year’s realistic goal is the NIT. The dribbling Frogs would have to finish sixth in the conference to even sniff a big dance invite. That possibility vanished after Tuesday’s collapse against Oklahoma in our most lopsided loss of the season. Unfortunately, these young Toads are trending down into what has become a customary mid-season slump. They’ll need to rebound and win games against unranked foes, as well as upsetting someone they shouldn’t, to even have a chance at the consolation tournament.