Now that the Cowboys have inevitably shat the bed, North Texas can officially draw the curtains on what was a forgettable football season for everyone except the Texas Longhorns. In the midst of disregarding the gridiron, it’s time to sync with Frog basketball as they proceed along the slog that is undoubtedly the deepest hoops conference in the country.
TCU joins seven other Big 12 rosters currently ranked. For those playing the home game, our conference has 14 members. The Frogs are sitting fourth overall with a 13-3 record and only one conference loss, to then third-ranked Kansas. Tech and Baylor are deadlocked for first with identical overall win/loss totals and are undefeated in conference, and Kansas sits just below with the same 14-2 overall record as the others but dinged by a road defeat in Orlando to UCF last week.
The early season has been fairly cupcake-ey — typical of TCU hoops and Jamie Dixon-coached squads — but a notable 1-point win over Georgetown and a dominant performance against Arizona State gave pause that perhaps the team that fell just short against Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season was going to pick up where it left off despite missing name-brand players like Mike Miles Jr.
The Frogs opened conference competition against Big 12 blue bloods the Kansas Jayhawks at Allen FieldHouse, a venue the purple have won in before, but it’s still always a difficult task. Despite a slow start, TCU nipped at Jayhawk heels and never allowed their deficit to climb greater than 6, resulting in a 40-41 Kansas score at halftime.
The second half was more of the same, but the Frogs led more often than not and even took their own 5-point lead with less than 10 minutes to go. The bitter ending to such a tight game was a flagrant foul against TCU center Ernest Udeh, who intercepted a pass by flying in front of Hunter Dickinson, accidentally elbowing the Jayhawk’s kisser in the process. The highly questionable designation of a flagrant (which can be accidental by definition) awarded KU two free throws — both made successfully — and the ball, which Dickinson followed with a layup for his 30th point of the game. The Frogs had a chance at a running bucket as time expired, but it was off the mark, and what had been a wonderfully competitive showdown concluded mostly at the hands of overbearing officiating.
Dixon didn’t allow his disciples to feel sorry for themselves over what would have been a bangin’ start to their conference slate. They followed Saturday’s disappointment with a midweek romping of the Oklahoma Sooners, a team that once was Dixon’s kryptonite but in recent years has been a demon that the coach has exorcized from his brainstem. The Frogs led by as many as 17 as they ran roughshod over the court and stole the ball repeatedly. Neither squad shot well from long range, but TCU’s Emanuel Miller made 100% of the three balls he attempted and was above-average from the field on his way to 27 points in the 9-point victory at home over the 9th-ranked Sooners.
TCU concluded their week at home on Saturday with their second matchup against a top-three opponent in as many weeks. The Houston Cougars hit the court running, building as great as a 12-point lead midway through the first half. The Frogs hopped their way back to within two points in a low scoring 29-31 game. TCU owned the first part of the second frame, quickly taking and building to a 7-point lead and maintaining the upper hand until the squads knotted themselves at 59 with less than five minutes remaining. A Houston 3-pointer left fans watching on edge as 87 seconds elapsed before anyone scored again, a fast-break layup by TCU’s Micah Peavy. Udeh drew a foul, sending the struggling free-throw shooter to the line. It was painful to watch as he missed both, but the scrappy center was able to rebound his own miss before drawing another foul and a one-and-one opportunity that — you guessed it — he missed. Houston successfully rebounded the missed foul shot and laid in a bucket for a 64-61 lead.
However, the foul gods shined upon Avery Anderson, who is actually a good free-throw shooter, with a successful one-and-one before the teams traded long balls. TCU approached the penultimate possession slowly, hoping to leave as little time on the clock as possible, a backdoor cut by Miller and a whirling-dervish layup bounced and heaved precariously around the rim before dropping in. The Cougs had five seconds to make something happen, and, mercifully for Frog fans, Peavy was able to burgle the ball at midcourt and squash any last-second Houston heroics.
This banner week for TCU has landed them a 19th ranking in the AP poll and their first appearance in the Top 25 this season. As a trend, the first trip through the conference gauntlet has always been kinder for the Frogs than the follow-up. Hardwood hecklers can only watch and wait to see the trajectory as the season progresses. The Big 12 is profoundly difficult on the road, and TCU hasn’t won a game in enemy territory as of MLK Monday. The greatest concern for this group of purple ballers is no different than it has been the past several years — TCU doesn’t roster an imposing scorer at the center or power forward position. Udeh is maturing and contributing well due to his hustle and shot blocking, but the 6’11 sophomore is poor from the stripe and isn’t a consistent offensive threat. Miller is collecting the big stat lines, but there isn’t a true power paint player who can buoy the offense when it cools or counterpunch a guy like Dickinson or Gonzaga’s Drew Timme from last year.
Despite the holes, the Frogs have proven themselves capable of competing with some of the best in the country already, and they will surely be in the tournament conversation if they can maintain a .500 or better conference record through what will be a murderous slate that continues this week with Cincinnati on the road tonight (Tuesday, Jan. 16) and 24th-ranked Iowa State in Fort Worth.