It started happening rather quickly, maybe after TCU’s Big 12 season-opening loss to Texas Tech in early January.
Each time TCU basketball coach Trent Johnson took his seat to speak to the media after another Horned Frogs loss in the Big 12, he’d let out an almost involuntary groan of agony.
The losses, especially those in which the Horned Frogs were never competitive, were soul crushing for Johnson. Even if, by all accounts, TCU’s first season in the Big 12 was expected to be a struggle, especially after losing three key players for the season to injury, the losses still stung for the 56-year-old Johnson, in his first season at TCU.
Around the state, including in south Dallas, Arlington and San Antonio, three high school seniors agonized along with Johnson, his staff, the team and fans.
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Karviar Shepherd, ranked by Rivals.com as the third-best center recruit in the country at Dallas Prime Prep Academy, has been watching, often in person, as he was Saturday for the Frogs’ win over Oklahoma.
He was sitting with Brandon Parrish, a forward from Arlington Seguin High School, ranked as the 25th best recruit at his position in the country.
There’s also Michael Williams, a three-star point guard from San Antonio Reagan High School, a somewhat unheralded recruit who considered offers from Utah, Tulane and Pennsylvania.
All three of them, beginning with Parrish last September, have committed to TCU and have lit the imagination of Frogs fans for what the future could hold. And after a season like TCU’s first in the Big 12, hope for the future is all fans could hang their hats on.
The Frogs (11-20, 2-16 Big 12) open their first Big 12 Championship against Texas (15-16, 7-11) at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday in Kansas City, Mo. The trio will be watching back in Texas.
Their commitment to TCU, struggles and all, Johnson said, is what should impress people the most.
“Let’s talk about their courage,” Johnson said, referring to their commitment to a school that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1998.
Johnson was attracted to their values and maturity as much as their talent on the basketball court. All three, in turn, were impressed with TCU’s academic reputation and are interested in helping Johnson turn the program’s fortunes around.
All three sound and act uncharacteristically mature for high school seniors.
“That’s why they’re good players and that’s why they’re going to be ambassadors for this basketball program and this institution,” Johnson said.
Shepherd, a 6-foot-10 post with quickness, was also attracted to working with Johnson, a post player himself at Boise State, who has helped TCU forward Adrick McKinney drastically improve this season.
“I know he’s a great post-player coach,” Shepherd said. “He gets them better. I want to get better as my career goes on, as far as I can go. And I feel he can help me the best.”
Parrish was also drawn in by Johnson’s personality and the idea that he could be part of rebuilding TCU’s program.
“I like what he’s about as a coach,” Parrish said. “He’s a real serious guy the way he goes about his business. I really enjoyed my visit. They made me feel comfortable around them. There wasn’t that awkward feeling you do get with some coaches.”
All three have heard razzing from friends, joking about TCU’s struggles in the Big 12. All three have taken it in stride, promising detractors that TCU’s future is bright.
“It’s been tough a little bit, I’ll admit it has,” said Williams, the son of two members of the military. “I’m sitting home watching them play and I’m seeing where I’ll be able to fit in, where I’ll be able to come in and contribute. All I can see is room for improvement.”
None of them sounds overwhelmed by the expectations some fans have for them. Their names and accolades have been displayed during each television broadcast of the Frogs’ league games. During a TCU blowout, announcers have, like a lifeline, gone to a graphic touting their commitments.
“It’s been tough,” Shepherd said. “But I just look at it as me coming in and trying to be of help. They’re underdogs and I like playing for underdogs because they’re usually the one who’s going to come up and [surprise people]. I just know that I have to come in and make an impact and bring a toughness, because we sure needed toughness this year. I’m going to do whatever I can to make them tougher.
“I feel very confident in the team going into next year. We can be one of the better teams in the Big 12 if we just put our minds to it.”
Johnson is quick to point out that this recruiting class, which could grow by one or two more recruits this spring, should be judged down the road, not now.
“These are three very talented, very skilled, competitive individuals,” he said. “Do I think they have a chance to be special college players? No question. But let’s not put the cart before the horse. The only thing that’s going to stop this from being a good story — I mean honestly — is me. And I’m not screwing this up.
“This isn’t about hope anymore. This program is going to be competitive. We’re going to get back to the postseason and NCAA Tournament. There’s too many good players in this area. This is a great institution with a great education — not good — a great education, and we’re in one of the premier conferences in the country that plays a high level of basketball. What kid doesn’t want that?”