Well, it’s official: Basketball season is finally, mercifully over. Yes, I realize there is a game tonight and that, win or lose, the Frogs are sadly guaranteed a spot in the 8/9 against Wyoming in the MWC Tournament. But really, best case scenario the Frogs shock Air Force, ride that momentum to take down a Wyoming team that is much better than they are and has won three times as many league games… and then get crushed once again by BYU – albeit a suddenly deflated BYU - in a game that counts. But who really expects it to get that far? Let’s face it – this season has been over since before the students returned from Xmas Break and there’s really no arguing otherwise. At this point, the natural question to ask is: What the hell went wrong? Especially this year when you consider that we had a legitimate point guard, a 2-guard who could handle the ball and wasn’t afraid to take it to the hoop, and had a supporting cast that featured the likes of Garlon Green, Sammy Yeager and JR Cadot, not Keion Mitchem, Edvinas Ruzgas and Zvonko Buljan. On top of that, Jim Christian was in year three and, after purging all signs of the Dougherty era, should have by all means had his plan in place. Now? All we can do is look at the 10-19 record, including only one conference win, and once again ask: Seriously, WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?
Expectations. As the old saying goes, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me… and fool me three times, you’re just a fucking idiot and deserve what you get, which is exactly what happened to the majority of TCU fans this year. But it felt different, didn’t it? Of course, I’m talking about TCU’s non-conference record. In Christian’s first two years, the Frogs went 9-5 and 8-7, respectively. Of course, neither of those records are shiny, but for a team still feeling the aftershocks of the Daugherty Era, a 9-5 non-con record may as well have been winning the Final Four. In hindsight, perhaps we should’ve seen the writing on the wall with the dip that record took in year two, but at that point it still made sense to give Christian the benefit of the doubt. And when these Frogs blasted off to a 9-6 record, including wins over USC and Texas Tech, it looked like our faith had been rewarded.
But then the Nebraska game happened.
I remember the day very well – lyle and I had just gone to see my high school team play in the state semis at SMU and I remember being extremely bummed out that DirecTV wasn’t carrying the Frogs/Huskers game which was on directly after the football game ended. It may be difficult for you to remember, but the Frogs were at that point 7-3 and had taken out the Red Raiders in Lubbock only three days before. However, once my guys lost a game where they recovered something like 6 turnovers but still lost on a last second blocked punt, the writing was on the walls, although I didn’t know it at the time.
The game itself wasn’t the issue – the Frogs lost 70-56, and it was never even that close – but the much chronicled post game locker room dustup that occurred afterwards. It’s hard to tell exactly what happened since it went on behind closed doors, but with hindsight as our guide it would appear that Hank Thorns took issue with guys not playing as hard as they should, notably wing man Sammy Yeager, who did not have one of his better games in Lincoln. At the time I remember brushing it off, spinning it along the lines of, “You mean our team is actually showing some heart, cares about losing and are calling each other out? Sign me up!” Unfortunately, it went much deeper than that.
Hank Thorns injured and Sammy Yeager kicked off the team. I lump these two events together because they occurred back to back and because they are at least partially related. We all remember back in December when Hank Thorns was injured in a win over Northwestern State, who now have played a part in destroying a TCU athletic season in TWO sports. When that happened, I wrote a piece discussing what the Frogs needed to do to hold serve in the announced three games Thorns would be missing against Chicago State, Tulsa and Rice. And while 3-0 would’ve been preferable, I think we all would’ve settled for 2-1 and been absolutely fine with it. Of course, TCU would end up thrashing Chicago State and then dropped the next two. Worse yet, in the two games we lost, Thorns actually ended up playing significant minutes. Something was clearly off, but we brushed it aside assuming that Hank just needed a couple of games to get his legs back.
TCU would expectedly lose the conference opener to San Diego State, a loss brushed aside due to it occurring mere days after the Rose Bowl, and then Christian dropped the bomb – Sammy Yeager would no longer be a part of the team due to bad behavior. True, he was only averaging 9 points a game, but when you’re talking about a squad that ranks 215th in the nation in points scored, every single one of them counts. Realistically those points should’ve been replaceable, but it turns out his explosiveness was what TCU would miss the most, which was clearly illustrated in the 34 point beat down from UNLV immediately following his dismissal. Sammy had 22 points and 9 boards in the win over Tech, 17 points and 9 boards in the win against SMU and was a high flying, rim attacking threat that the Frogs had so sorely lacked since the last of the Tubbs’ recruits left town. However, if the rumors I hear are true, Yeager wasn’t exactly an upstanding locker room personality and, based on his blow up with Thorns, if it came down to picking one over the other, Christian made the right decision. But looking back, there’s no way the Frogs are sitting at 1-14 in the Mountain West if Yeager is still on the team.
The Final Blow. Despite everything that occurred above, heading into the January 26th game at New Mexico, things weren’t as terrible as they seem now. Yes, we were 1-5 in Conference play, but the 18 point win over Wyoming was still a pretty fresh memory and of the five losses, three were to teams that are in all of the current bracket projections, the fourth was to a surprisingly potent Colorado State team who at that point was still factoring into tournament discussion, with only the fifth and most recent loss to Utah sticking out as a head scracther. Clearly we weren’t going to win the conference or make the tournament, but we had also played the meat of our schedule straight out of the gate and had time to turn it around.
And then the tweeting started – Ronnie Moss would not travel with the team to due to “personal reasons” aka, the kiss of death. Without Moss, the Frogs would lose in the Pit by 25 points and, immediately preceding the Air Force game three days later, it was announced that Moss was suspended indefinitely. Game. Over. Of course, TCU showed some heart in that game, playing more as a team without the ball stopping Moss taking up shots, and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but we should’ve known better. The Frogs were done and the rest of the league was going to treat us like the Washington Generals. And they have. WHEW BOY they have.
So what’s next? What hope do we really have as TCU fans heading into the Big East in the season after next? I guess it depends on if you’re a glass half full or glass half empty kinda person. Me? I’m vehemently glass empty, but for the sake of fairness, I’ll try and give both sides their due here.
Glass Half-Full: Clearly the thing that should stick out to you most is that this team only loses two seniors in Greg Hill and Nikola Gacesa. And while you have to appreciate their efforts in sticking with a losing team, truth be told their contributions were menial and will not be terribly missed – about 10 points and 5 boards a game, combined. And with that many players returning, the Frogs should logically fare much better. Ronnie Moss will be all accounts return to the team after his suspension and should be a better player for it. Hank Thorns will have had a full season and two off seasons to learn this team, its strength and weaknesses and as there will be no new starters, the learning curve shouldn’t be an issue. Garlon Green, assuming he doesn’t go the way of his brother, will have another off season to learn that you can’t get by on athleticism alone and if that guy can put it together he’s going to be terrifyingly good. Perhaps most importantly, freshman Amric Fields, the biggest hope this team has, has gotten some phenomenal experience in the second half of the season that would not have been available had Yeager and Moss been hogging up spots in the rotation. I know not many of you have paid attention to this team, especially in the second half of the season, but Fields is by all accounts going to be legit. Perhaps not “playing in the NBA legit” as Mac Engel suggested, but he has size and a mid-range shot that any wing player in the NCAA would envy. Of course, unless he’s a once in a generation big man shooting talent like Dirk Nowitzki, you don’t want a near seven foot guy playing on the perimeter, but with an off season of strength and conditioning work, plus practice playing with his back to the basket, by next year he should be a different player. Considering Nikola Cerina is the only other remotely tall player on the team, this should provide a much needed boost in the front court.
But the biggest difference next year could be Jim Christian and how he is received by the players. Although suspending Ronnie Moss didn’t pay any immediate dividends, I think the fact that he demonstrated he would put himself on the firing line rather than let one player think he is bigger than the team spoke volumes about his character. The problem with the team after Moss wasn’t focus, it was lack of talent. When the other team is better than you are, nine times out of ten – or in this case, nine out of nine – you are going to lose. But just look at the Air Force game and the most recent games again SDSU, Utah and New Mexico. TCU was in all of those games, they were playing SOME defense, and they were playing together as a team. This may be me trying to make lemonade from lemons, but how many hopelessly lost teams actually compete when they have nothing to compete for? That was all made possible because Jim Christian never let these guys completely give up on themselves. They may finish with the worst record of Christian’s head coaching career, but you can’t say that they aren’t buying into what he’s preaching. He’s finally purged the locker room of the guys who weren’t on board and seemingly has “his” guys ready to go to war. Having this same squad back next year with Christian at the helm should hopefully be a positive
Glass Half-Empty: Alright, now that I’ve done the PC, shits and giggles outlook above, let’s get real: TCU Basketball is in big, BIG trouble. Like, to the point that I actually stifled the thought of bringing back Daugherty pretty recently. The HORROR!!! I honestly don’t know what it is. We’re in fertile basketball territory. We had a rock solid program not so long ago. Every other sport at the school, including golf, tennis and freaking WOMENS RIFLE, is top notch, or at least nationally competitive, which would lead you to believe the basketball team should have some sort of good mojo by osmosis. We by no means have great basketball fans, but TCU fans are probably the most fickle in the country and could be won over by a couple of halfway decent seasons. Remember when we went to the NIT? We weren’t selling out games, but we were damn near close a lot of the time. Has it really gone that far downhill? Yes, yes, COMPLETELY.
For one, we somehow fail to get the most out of our players. A team with Ronnie Moss, Hank Thorns, Garlon Green and even JR Cadot shouldn’t win the Mountain West, but they should compete. Colorado State!!!!! Is going to finish in the top half of the conference, for goodness sake. And they were MUCH further down than the Frogs – they were 9-22 just two years ago. Colorado State. COLORADO STATE!!! I mean them no offense but we’re talking about basketball. Not skiing. Not hockey. BASKETBALL. They should be an afterthought compared to TCU. But, of course they swept us this year, and even when they were going 9-22 they won 4 conference games, including one against our very own Horned Frogs.
But off that tangent and back to not getting the most out of our players, that is exactly what frightens me about having almost every one of these guys back next year. Is it really good to bring back a bunch of guys from a team that is likely going to finish 10-20 for the regular season with only 1 conference win to show for it? I like Thorns as a player, but I question how playing for such an underachieving team will weigh on his psyche, especially after having played in the ACC. I hope to God Ronnie Moss learned his lesson riding the bench and gets that basketball itch back, but he’s clearly not the mature leader that Christian wants him to be. Amric Fields has lots of talent, but he’s the tallest guy on our team and weighs 210 pounds. Unless he’s eating a deep fried cow every night between now and November to get some protein in his system, he’s a leg injury waiting to happen when he starts getting a full workload next fall. And Nikola Cerina, despite his occasional spurts of talent, is not a big man. He’s 6’9”. A team that should be looking to challenge for a conference title next year – BYU and Utah are gone, SDSU will be depleted – can’t run out a 6’9” center night in and night out and expect to be taken seriously. If Christian doesn’t recruit some height this off season, then get ready for another year at the bottom of the barrel.
As for Jim Christian, well he’s clearly at a career crossroads, and TCU is at a hiring crossroads. Were this any other year, I’d just flat out accept that he’s coming back, that TCU clearly views the men’s basketball program as a minor blemish on an overall outstanding athletic department resume, and that they will re-evaluate Christian’s status once he plays out his contract. Unfortunately, time is not on our side with the Big East move coming the season after next. TCU has to decide, and quick, if they think Christian is the guy who is going to lead us into the uncertain future. On the one hand, all signs probably point to him coming back – CDC hasn’t made any mention of a job evaluation, the Frogs are in the midst of renovations all around campus so paying two coaches probably isn’t high on their list, and I assume they’re taking the conservative route in believing that maintaining coaching consistency is the safer move. After all, what coach is going to want to come and take over a bottomed out program right as they move into the most powerful conference in the country? But is it the right move? And is it the right move for Christian himself?
If you look at Christian’s career at Kent State and TCU, you’ll notice the severe differences. At Kent, Christian took over a firmly established program, one that was a semi-regular in the NCAA tournament and who just had their coach, Stan Heath, hired away by Arkansas. So the cupboards weren’t exactly bare. While there, Christian never really got the team over the hump, dropping out in the first round a couple of times, but he did enough to convince TCU – and, to be fair, had the Frogs not come calling someone else would have – that he was their guy.
And whew boy, what a shit heap he stepped into.
After the lost years of Neil P clicking his heels together and wishing he was back in Kansas, the TCU Basketball program went into a nose dive not seen since Al Pacino and a table full of coke. But at least Pacino had fun along the way, because it’s been all day-after recovery for Christian. First, he brought in Moss, his top recruit at Kent State, which was good. Then, he ran all of the Daugherty players out of the program, more or less, which was also good. But almost right off the bat he hit a wall and learned how difficult it is to recruit talented players to Fort Worth. So he tried to use stop gap measures by bringing in a bunch of JuCo guys who could play right away. This worked in the short term, but you have to remember that these guys are JuCo for a reason. Zvonko Buljan and Sammy Yeager aren’t the kind of guys who are going to bring you a title; their behavioral issues were just more icing on the cake. Of course, we were willing to live with this at first because we knew it was going to take some time to build back some cred for the program and assumed that, after showing some promise is that first year, that the program was on the up and up. We were wrong.
After that first 14-17 season, TCU has gone 13-19 and now 10-19 to likely finish 10-21. Three years. three losing seasons, the record getting worse each year. There’s no way that the team should’ve regressed this much, but they have and I’m not sure it’s going to get any better. I really don’t have an answer for this happening. Maybe it’s because after the Daugherty Era I was ready for something, ANYTHING, different and thought too much of Christian. Perhaps we’ve expected too much all along. Perhaps TCU’s karma has all been used up in the football department. All I know is, things have been on the downswing since that NIT year, and two coaches haven’t been able to stop the bleeding.
And maybe the biggest question - TCU may still want Christian, but to be honest, should Christian still want TCU? I’m not sure his contract status, but if things don’t improve, I can’t imagine it will be renewed. And what then? Back to the assistant coaching ranks? After you’re been in the big chair, no one wants to go back! Who’s to say Christian doesn’t rescue whatever dignity he may have left and skip town altogether?
All I know is I’ve just spent 1300 words giving the glass half-empty prognosis, and I could easily double it if I weren’t cutting myself off right now.
Clearly you can spin the direction of the basketball program to your liking, but it doesn’t change the reality that this was one of the darkest years in the program’s history for a plethora of reasons. I hope Christian is the guy, I really do – he’s sharp, he says the right things and he really does want to build a winner. He just needs to figure out if he truly is a program builder or just a program sustainer. Regardless, if it’s the latter, the things that will happen to us in the Big East will be enough to make a grown man weep.