It’s midnight on Monday morning, and my heart is still racing. One month ago, I “challenged” Jamie Dixon’s tenure at TCU, asserting that the fourth-highest paid coach in the Big 12 needed to cement a tournament invite to secure his place in Fort Worth, despite his previous success. I’m not going to be so presumptuous that Coach Dixon reads my column, but writers need delusion to soldier on. Since then, Dixon’s Frogs beat Top 10-ranked Texas Tech and Kansas before toppling Top 20-ranked Texas during the first round of the conference tourney.
TCU’s 8-10 conference record — good enough for a fifth-place finish — is penultimate for a Big 12 squad from TCU. (They went 9-9 back in 2018.) Their conference tournament win over the Longhorns was gravy in securing a nine seed in the NCAA tourney and the second invite during Dixon’s leadership. This sired their opening-round game on the campus of San Diego State University, the most important for Horned ballers since Dixon — as a player — led the purple and white to their last tournament victory 35 years ago. Their opponent, the Seton Hall Pirates, have made many tournament appearances and compete in the Big East, which essentially exists as a basketball-only conference now.
If you neglected to reserve your Friday night for watching the last telecast of the opening round, I pity you. Dixon must have filled the Gatorade coolers with a tasty concoction of Red Bull and Pedialyte because the Frogs had wings and never seemed to tire. Watching the hustle from every purple baller on the floor was exhausting. The fervor to close out against every opponent’s shot, chase all rebounds, and make extra passes is usually an opening salvo that diminishes for most underdog teams in any big scenario, but TCU never relented. In fact, the defense could make fans wonder if a young Gary Patterson was sitting under the stands with three monitors and a headset. The Frogs’ defensive onslaught held the Pirates to 21 points per half, a new tournament low for the basketball school.
Offensively, star point guard Mike Miles Jr. (#1) completed tight passes near the basket all night long. Not necessarily known for their dominance below the rim, the Frogs could have been clad in Sherwin Williams coveralls as they owned the paint. The Pirates fell into early foul trouble, forcing them into soft coverage, and the Frogs responded by out-rebounding them to the tune of 14 extra by the end of the game. Miles assured his star status by swishing 21 points and was well assisted at the point by Damion Baugh (#10), who scored 14 to complement six assists.
The scariest TCU offense was both guards sharing the role of delegator, letting the other cut and swipe through Seton Hall’s defense. The 69-42 victory was emphatic in a game that never seemed close but was the most historic win in a generation, a victory so dominant in fashion that Dixon and the staff were able to call a final-minute timeout to clear the bench and allow every purple-clad player to log at least a floor appearance in the NCAA tournament.
As historic as the victory in the round of 64 was, it seems but a footnote compared with the guerilla warfare witnessed between TCU and the top-seeded Arizona Wildcats late Sunday night. The uphill battle began as well as possible for the underdog Frogs, with the Zonies languishing from the field and missing shots. That said, it’s easy to see why the Cats have lost only three games this season. Two seven-footers roam the paint to complement a long-bodied group of youngsters led by guard/forward hybrid Benedict Mathurin (#0), who — as a collective — swing the ball with ease and play physically without venturing into that gross Baylor/North Carolina territory of Saturday during that MMA fight masquerading as a basketball game.
The two halves were essentially mirror images, with TCU trailing 36-39 at the break then flipping that figure during the second. Early fouls, especially for Miles, forced Dixon to use his star player judiciously until minutes waned to single digits. Eddie Lampkin (#4) TCU’s big body on the boards looked small — he’s only 6-foot-11 — among the multiple skyscrapers from Tucson. That said, the exciting young center continued to be the beating heart of the team and finished with a clutch double-double of 14 rebounds and 20 points alongside the court general Miles, who also scored 20 points. The award for “right performance in the right game” goes to forward Charles O’Bannon Jr. (#5), who can be inconsistent but scored a team-high 23 points Sunday night and represented one of the only outside shooting threats beside Miles.
In perhaps the most excruciating minute in Horned hoops history, the Frogs clung to a one-point lead when Baugh and Lampkin executed a pick-and-roll, which didn’t land. Lampkin, who refused denial all game long, grabbed one of his many rebounds with two taller Cats surrounding him to secure the three-point lead. Then horror. With 12 seconds remaining, Mathurin stepped far behind the arch and swished a three-ball to knot everything at 75. Coming out of a timeout with approximately 10 seconds remaining, Miles and company worked to dribble for a high percentage shot, only for the point guard to be walled off by a pack of Wildcats forcing him into the backcourt (a sequence that, under non-clutch circumstances, would have definitely drawn a foul), dropping the ball and allowing Dalen Terry (#4) an uncontested sprint for the dunk and win. Luckily, a denial by Father Time (who, I’m told, is still undefeated) flashed the red square almost in unison with the ball leaving Terry’s fingertips, bringing overtime to a game that already possessed all the drama college hoops promises.
Overtime began nervous, each team in the double bonus, as neither found early rhythm from the field as both punched their way to highly contested short-range shots. Emanuel Miller (#2) scored the first field goal for either team and literally left his blood on the court, thanks to running into the elbow of Christian Koloko (#35) after sinking his shot. In the end, despite multiple lead changes during overtime, the foul troubles — both Miller and Micah Peavy (#0) fouled out — and Arizona’s clutch free-throw shooting were too much for the Frogs. In two specific sequences, when the score was within a possession, the Wildcats were able to snag favorable bounces from missed three-point shots and slam game winning points. Arizona relied — and rightly so — on their best players, Mathurin PAC-12 player of the year) and 7-foot-1 Koloko, who combined for a staggering 58 points. Koloko stymied TCU all night as a multirange threat who collected fouls like TCU undergrads do parking tickets.
This incredibly balanced contest was ecstasy and agony to watch. TCU’s greatest lead was eight points. Arizona’s was nine. TCU finished with a slight edge in almost every statistical category, except the most important one, which was shooting percentage. In a game that remained in question until 11 seconds remained in overtime, the Frogs acquitted themselves as a team full of fight and dignity, in a game that March Madness, as a business, wishes they could bottle and distribute. It would have been quite the boost for the Frogs to unseat a basketball blue blood like Arizona en route to their first Sweet-16 appearance, but losing in overtime to this caliber of team, in the fashion they did, is as good a loss that exists, if such a thing does. Dixon and his disciples have officially put the country and the rest of campus on notice that TCU might be a basketball school after all.