The name of the game is “survive and advance,” and the Hawkeyes are going to have to defeat a tough opponent in TCU if they want to live to see the next round of the NIT.
Now, I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t paid much attention to the Horned Frogs this season - they’re traditionally a bottom of the barrel basketball program and they weren’t expected to show major improvements for a couple years. Despite this, they’ve turned things around in their first year under former TCU star Jamie Dixon and have hit their stride at the right time coming into their matchup with the Hawkeyes.
To help get a better idea of what to expect from the Horned Frogs, we talked to Melissa Triebwasser of SB Nation’s excellent TCU blog Frogs O’ War. In this Q&A, we talked about the Horned Frogs’ Big 12 Tournament win over Kansas, road performance, who and what will impact this game most, and of course, who she expects to win.
Let’s get it.
Max: Tell us the story of TCU's basketball season. What were preseason expectations and how do fans feel about the NIT appearance?
Melissa: TCU basketball has been an exercise in futility and destruction for the last... oh, say - well since I was in college, so we will just say it's been a while. Coach after coach has come to town promising the hope that maybe, just maybe, we wouldn't totally suck. An NIT run in 2005 and CBI bid in 2012 are all the Frogs have had to show for that promise, and other than an undefeated preseason a few years back, the Frogs have generally been considered one of the worst teams in the Power Five. A couple years ago, TCU went all in with basketball, dropping a cool $80 million dollars to build one of the most beautiful and state-of-the-art basketball facilities in the country. Armed with the goods in recruiting, the Frogs went after our white whale - former TCU Basketball player Jamie Dixon, who led the Frogs to their last NCAA Tournament win - in the 80's. Fans had high hopes when Dixon came home - but most figured it would take at least two years to get the Frogs sniffing the postseason. He went out and got a top ten point guard in freshman Jaylen Fisher, turned Vlad Brodziansky into one of the best big men in the conference, and convinced four seniors - all former starters- to take a backseat to a young core in the name of winning. After a really solid preseason, and the winningest conference run since TCU joined the Big 12, the energy around the program is at its highest point in decades. There were students camped out in the rain for tickets to the Baylor game. And even though the Frogs dropped that one, and had a long losing streak towards the end of the season, the momentum stayed and the home court advantage grew. People are legitimately excited about the future, and the fact we get a taste of the NIT in year one is icing on the cake.
Max: The Horned Frogs beat Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament, which was their only win over a ranked team all season. What was it that they did in order to beat one of the top teams in the country?
Melissa: The Frogs have played their best basketball over the last couple weeks, and caught Kansas at the right time to boot. TCU played really well that game, active on defense and finally hit some shots on O. It helped that KU was without Josh Jackson - who was suspended by Bill Self for a game that was essentially meaningless to the Jayhawks because he doesn't care that his players have been horrible human beings off the court and just wants to win, dangit - and that they only go seven deep as it is. The Frogs wanted it more, outplayed KU, and even when they decided to turn it on, TCU kept beating them back. Kenrich Williams was all over the place on both ends of the floor, and the Frogs got great guard play from Alex Robinson and Desmond Bane. It meant more to TCU, and that showed from tipoff.
PS: Kansas is overrated. If you have them going to the Final Four, burn your bracket now.
Max: TCU doesn't appear to be a very good road team, going 3-8 in true road games this season. Has this been a product of tough road opponents or do they simply get the yips in front of opposing crowds?
Melissa: The Big 12 has some of the best home crowds in the country - Phogg Allen, the Octagon of Doom in Manhattan, and Hilton's reps are well known, WVU, Baylor, and Okie State get great home crowds, and if you've never played a road anything in Lubbock, Texas - well, weird things happen in Lubbock and it's just part of it. It's hard to win on the road in any conference, especially when you're a young team. It also shouldn't be forgotten that the Big 12 has round robin format, so you're playing everyone twice, and with the coaches in the conference right now, the adjustments teams make are generally pretty effective from game one to game two. The Frogs haven't played particularly bad on the road - the only blowout loss was to Kansas - they just ran into some good teams. Other than the loss at OU, which was inexcusable, they were in every game against teams that were better than them until the closing minutes. They needed to learn how to win those games, and it took a seven game swoon to close the regular season to get them to turn the corner. I don't think they'll be intimidated by the road environment Sunday afternoon, but I don't expect much of a TCU contingent so there won't be much in the stands to help build momentum for TCU, either.
Max: Tell us about TCU in general. What is their biggest strength? Weakness?
Melissa: The Frogs are finally starting to play the level of defense expected from a Jamie Dixon squad, and they fly around on that end of the court. TCU regularly goes nine deep, sometimes even ten, without a huge drop-off, so they should have fresh legs for this time of year. A really solid rebounding team, the Frogs have a size advantage against most teams they play, with one of the more underrated big men in the country in Vlad Brodziansky - who is solid on both ends of the floor. With a trio of guards that can get to the rim consistently in Alex Robinson, Desmond Bane, and Jaylen Fisher, the pick and roll game is really good and Vlad's footwork makes it unstoppable when he's on with his shot. They're also a really unselfish team who can be led in scoring by about six different guys on any given night, and as a team are more than willing to feed the hot hand.
Weakness-wise, TCU can get really sloppy with the ball, especially with their young guards, and turnovers have been a problem in their losses. Iowa presses and traps quite a bit on defense it seems, so this could be especially problematic. The Frogs can also go on long scoring droughts, especially if they aren't shooting a decent percentage from deep (and that's often the case. We do not have a knock down outside shooter, at all). Free throw shooting is a big issue for this team as well, which is why I personally like the rule change from a one and one to a two shot foul once you hit four fouls in ten minutes. Missing the front end of those one and ones late killed the Frogs against OU and K State down the stretch.
Max: If TCU wants to come into Carver and beat the Hawks, they'll need to play shutdown defense or put up a lot of points. Which is more likely to occur?
Melissa: Definitely the defensive one. There have been games this season where the Frogs have shot under 30% from the floor as a team and kept things in single digits. We are all anxious for the class of 2017 to get to campus and bring the offense with them.
Max: Who is the most important player for the Horned Frogs and what makes him so special?
Melissa: So, you're going to let me wax poetic about Kenrich Williams? Ok... here we go. Kenny Hustle, as he is known around Fort Worth, is the kind of player that opposing fans spend 40 minutes lamenting during the game and immediately turn to their friend after and say "I wish we had a guy like that on our team". He's everywhere... there is not a loose ball or a rebound that Kenny doesn't think is his birthright, and he will sacrifice his body all game long proving it. He plays great defense, is one of the best rebounders in the country - especially on the offensive end - and led the Big 12 in double doubles. Over the last few games, he's been far more consistent from deep, and if he continues to hit on near 40% of his threes, TCU becomes a much better offensive team overall. After missing last season due to a knee injury, he has brought energy and heart to this team in a significant way. I would expect he and JD Miller will be the primary defenders on Peter Jok, so he could have a major impact on the game if he can slow Jok down some. He is the heartbeat and the engine of Jamie Dixon's team, and he'll be an NBA player after next season. Think of him as a poor man's Kawhi Leonard. Maybe a homeless man's. But he's really good and when he plays well, it tends to rub off on the whole team. He's also rocking a haircut that can only be described as an afro-mullet, which only serves to make him more amazing.
Also, Robinson, Fisher, and Vlad have to play well for the Frogs to win. If they have a 3-1 assist ration and Vlad scores 15, TCU has a really good shot at the upset.
Max: Iowa is a poor rebounding team and this is partially due to their lack of a true big man. Will TCU be able to take advantage of one of Iowa's biggest weaknesses?
Melissa: This is excellent news for TCU. When they have out-rebounded opponents, they have had success. And with Vlad (5.6 rpg), Williams (9.4 rpg), JD Miller (3.2 rpg), plus Karviar Shepherd and Chris Washburn who can come off the bench as big bodies and wreak havoc in the paint, it's definitely one of the team's strengths. If the Frogs can dominate the boards, especially on the offensive end to lead to second-chance opportunities, it might help negate some of their offensive struggles. It was certainly a factor against Fresno State, and I expect it to be a difference maker Sunday.
Max: Alright, prediction time. Who ya got?
Melissa: I think this is a great matchup between two teams who are trying to build for the future through a long NIT run now. Ultimately, they are both really young, so it could come down to momentum, which gives the home team an advantage. But, I am a Frog, and I have loved watching this team, and am not quite ready to be done. So, I will put on my purple-tinted glasses and say TCU pulls off the upset, 64-62, with senior Brandon Parrish hitting a game winning three with just seconds remaining.
Thanks to Melissa for her time and insight! Of course, I hope the Hawkeyes throw nine hundred points on your team. For more on TCU hoops, check out Frogs O’ War and check them out on Twitter at @FrogsOWar. Go Hawks.