Win one for Hank.
Apparently that means basketball season finale.
So it's come to this - one final game for the most successful Frogs basketball team in some time against the 23rd ranked San Diego Aztecs at the DMC. Regardless of how this one turns out - and I personally think it will turn out much better than expected - you've gotta admit these Frogs have been fun to watch and have breathed life into a basketball program that was pretty much left for dead as recently as last year. Three Seniors will be playing their last game in FW tomorrow evening and while losing JR Cadot and Craig Williams will be a blow, knowing that Hank Thorns's days of running the point for TCU are drawing to a close is a tough pill to swallow for even the most casual fan.
When Thorns arrived on campus four years ago as a transfer from Virginia Tech, expectations were sky high given his ACC pedigree. For a TCU fan not used to basketball success, the ACC was basically, "HEY! LOOK! SHINY THING!" The fact that anyone from that league would choose to come to TCU was, at the very least, a roundabout sort of vilification that TCU was headed in the right direction under Jim Christian. True, the final results weren't very positive during Thorns tenure which makes his case a difficult one, but unless you added Michael Jordan in his prime to his first two teams, no one player was going to be able to single-handledly change TCU's fortunes.
Clearly though, this year was the payoff as Thorns developed from, "talented creator" to "bonafide leader and assassin." He's the guy who wanted to win the most and didn't treat a W as a positive side effect instead of an expectation. He's the main reason TCU has sealed their first winning season of Christian's tenure and more or less locked up a post-season berth. TCU has changed for the better under Thorns' leadership and, no matter what happens the rest of this season, the days of TCU having to generate fan interest with the likes of Zvonko Buljan and Sammy Yeager are over. TCU is entering the Big 12 riding the crest of a wave generated by Thorns and for that we owe him big time.
Now, onto the game...
After Tuesday night's disappointing, yet expected, loss to Wyoming, TCU's post season hopes took a BIT of a hit, although that really only applies if you genuinely believed TCU to be an at large candidate for the NCAA tourney. It's here that perhaps one of our more crass contributors would suggest that those people are idiots, but considering the last time the Frogs made the NCAAs Monica Lewinsky didn't have a pressing need to get her dry cleaning performed on a regular basis, the lack of understanding of the selection process can be forgiven. I've even written something to the effect that TCU had a sliver of a chance, but deep down it was always going to take getting in by way of the Conference tourney title. As far as the NIT, CBI, STD, HIV tournaments go, I'd say the Frogs are probably on the NIT bubble but almost guaranteed a spot in one of the others given that, NIT excluded, those tourneys typically have to BEG teams to play. Seeing as how TCU hasn't made the post-season in nearly a decade, I'd say we are in no position to turn down even the lowliest of tournaments. If anything, rewarding the Seniors should be the ultimate aim of any post season invite, and I can't see TCU denying them that.
SDSU enters tomorrow night's game on the other end of the spectrum, having all but locked up an NCAA at large bid and playing mostly for seeding at this point in the season. But, lest that make you think they'll be fat and happy tomorrow evening, with a win the Aztecs would clinch at least a share of the MWC title which is uber important for the Conference tourney, so I wouldn't expect them to just come in and lay down because TCU has been so tough at home. After a 3 game jaw jacking by UNLV, New Mexico and Air Force, the Aztecs enter the game on a 3 game tear, dispatching Wyoming, a tourney bubble team in CSU and the Boise States. Despite the aforementioned three game blip, the Aztecs have gotten hot at the right time and, giving the recent UNM and UNLV slides, are a comfortable favorite to win the Conference tourney.
So what makes the Aztecs go? Well, they bang under the basket, grab a good number of rebounds and, led by guards Jamal Franklin and Chase Tapley, shoot a pretty high percentage from the field (45%). By comparison, TCU isn't terrible from the field (43.6%) but they've never been a good rebounding team, and this year is no exception as they rank 263rd overall in the country. SDSU ranks 53rd. The Aztecs especially excel at grabbing boards on their opponents end of the floor, limiting second chance opportunities and play some of the best second half defense in the country. Considering TCU has pretty much decided every one of their victories late in the second half of games, this does not bode well for the Horned Frogs. Also not boding well is the fact that SDSU is one of the most disciplined teams in the country, committing only 15 per game vs TCU at 18. However, given that neither team shoots freebies particularly well, I'm not sure how much that will come into play.
In their first meeting this season, the Frogs let the aforementioned Franklin drop 24 points and 11 boards all over them. In fact, they let everyone drop stuff on them, allowing the Aztecs to shoot over 50% from the field and let 4 total players get into double figures. TCU would lose by 10 points despite getting a 22 point effort from Freshman Kyan Anderson, making 93% of their free throws (WELL above their season average of 69%) and nailing 12 three pointers, typically a pretty good indicator of the final score for this particular team. In other words, TCU played about as solid of a game as they could've played in the situation and STILL never got close. The final margin may have only been 10, but the Frogs were down by as much as 18 and only got that close as a result of a sub-one minute flurry of points to end the game. In other words, it was a lot like the majority of our road games this year with a slightly happier ending.
While the Frogs had a menagerie of problems on that night back in early February, the biggest one was an APPALLING rebounding margin. As a reluctant refresher, the Frogs were outdone on the glass 34-16, with TWELVE of those coming on the offensive end for SDSU. Considering SDSU is one of the poorer offensive rebounding teams in the league, this is marginally concerning. ASDSU has earned their living by not allowing their opponents to get second chance opportunities, and they earned it that night.
So clearly that is the MAIN area of concentration if TCU is going to pull a third consecutive upset of a Top 25 team. The good news, though? In the previous two, TCU has flipped the rebounding margin, and at least one time in a big way. In the first game against UNLV, TCU grabbed 35 rebounds to the Rebels' 43; in the return trip, TCU flipped the margin to 43/31. In the first game against New Mexico, TCU was outrebounded 25 to 34; in the return trip TCU squeaked out a 35/34 advantage. I'm not sure what that means, but clearly playing in the cavernous confines of the DMC puts some extra spring into the Frogs Nikes. TCU was never going to win the game on the Aztecs home floor, but its hard to argue that, if they had kept the rebounding margin a bit closer, it wouldn't have gotten away from them as it did.
I was going to walk us through a few keys to the game here, but really, rebounding is it. If they Frogs can grab that advantage and keep the Aztecs off the offensive glass - something they are actually good at, ranking 51st in the country - they'll have a VERY good chance of winning this one. The Frogs are also going to have to contain Jamaal Franklin because, as he goes, so do the Aztecs. Out of SDSU's six losses, Franklin was held below his average in 3 of them and did not play in one. Yes, the Aztecs are chock full of very good players, but what is it they say about cutting off the head of the snake? Probably some kooky Indian hoodoo voodoo their namesake came up with, but from what I understand its good.
As for TCU, the same things that applied in the Wyoming game still apply here, as they do in any TCU game against quality competition. In the first game in San Diego, Amric Fields scored 3 points despite playing 19 minutes. So, uh, yeah, that's going to have to change. To draw out the comparison, Fields improved his scoring numbers in the two UNLV games and, even though he scored more at UNM in the loss than he did in the return game, he keyed the runaway margin late in the game. Thorns also had a game to forget the first go around, scoring 9 points, only dished out 4 assists, grabbed no rebounds and had six turnovers. Again, that's going to have to change.
On paper, TCU shouldn't have beaten UNLV or UNM, and probably not CSU. But, they did. Fueled by what will hopefully be a raucous home crowd in the season finale, I expect the fans to elevate Thorns to one of the better games of his career, the Frogs to make the rebounding margin at least acceptable and for TCU to head into post season play on the highest of highs after a hard fought victory. And from there, who knows?