College Sports

January 13, 2014

TCU men have improved this year, but injuries make it tough to tell

An 0-3 start to Big 12 play has masked how far the Horned Frogs have come since last season.

Based on three Big 12 games, you’d be hard-pressed to explain how TCU is better than this time a year ago.

Like last season, TCU is 0-3 in the Big 12, but this year’s team stayed competitive in two of its losses despite not playing particularly well. Last year, the Frogs had to play the game of their lives just to keep it interesting.

That’s less true this season, although anything less than a good performance against No. 9 Oklahoma State at 7 p.m. Wednesday is asking for big trouble.

After TCU went 9 of 20 from the line, including 2 of 9 in the first half, in a 26-point loss at Baylor, TCU coach Trent Johnson dismissed the notion that the free-throw struggle is an issue.

“Don’t look for anything now,” Johnson said, when asked if struggles at the line are contagious on a team. “Our Achilles’ heel is what I talked about from Day One.”

That, of course, is the need for better rebounding and solid defense, both of which were lacking against Baylor on Saturday.

Johnson dismissed the question because he knows free-throw shooting is not what ails his team, although better shooting at the line could have helped make games against West Virginia and Kansas State closer.

There are bigger issues. Chief among them is a lack of depth with Devonta Abron, Aaron Durley and Chris Washburn stuck on the bench because of injury or transfer rules.

The Frogs’ start, however, isn’t the same as last year’s.

TCU’s improvement, although not obvious from the Big 12 standings, is evident despite the early struggles.

Point guard Kyan Anderson is playing the best basketball of his career and is among Big 12 leaders in points, assists and steals.

The freshman class has been as good as expected, especially former Arlington Seguin star Brandon Parrish, who is averaging 11.1 points per game.

Plus, Amric Fields and Jarvis Ray, both coming off injuries last year, have played well and are averaging more than 10 points per game.

Whether that translates into more victories (the team was 2-16 in the league a year ago) remains to be seen. And it doesn’t get any easier when TCU (9-6, 0-3 Big 12) visits Oklahoma State (14-2, 2-1).

TCU’s loss at Baylor doesn’t highlight the Frogs’ problems as much as it highlights the toughness of the Big 12. The Bears, No. 15 Kansas, No. 8 Iowa State and OSU represent the top of the league. When they’re playing well, they can destroy much of the conference as Kansas State saw in a 26-point loss at KU on Saturday.

“We’re in a situation right now where we have to try to manage as best we can in terms of keeping this thing close and change defenses and not let what happens on the offensive end — meaning a shot doesn’t go down or if we don’t get a good look — dictate how we play at the other end,” Johnson said.

“Yeah, it’s frustrating for me and the kids. Obviously, this league is what it is. It’s without question the best league in the country, so you’d like to have all your people on board.”

As if the loss of the three post players wasn’t handicapping TCU enough, freshman guard Michael Williams missed the Baylor game with a high ankle sprain. And Fields, who has been hampered by a broken hand, and Hudson Price, who missed time with an illness, are still trying to get back in playing shape.

“The main thing for us is our health,” Johnson said. “Going into this year, I thought if we could get healthy and remain healthy we’d have experience to compete at a high level.

“That hasn’t happened, so bottom line is we’re not able to simulate in practice the type of physicality from a rebounding standpoint that we need to. Hopefully, no one else will get banged up, and we’ll find a way to get better and play better basketball.”

Johnson doesn’t want his players pressing, which may be the case with the free throws during Big 12 play. That’s likely why he said there was nothing to it after the Baylor loss and why he has come to loathe reminding people about the team’s injury problems.

“I sit up here and talk about rebounding, but when you have three guys sitting on the bench who can’t play — 6-foot-8 and above and 250 [pounds] — so it hurts,” he said. “But like I tell the kids, you’ve got to compete. You can’t feel sorry for yourself. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. So whether it’s Year 2 or Year 3 [of a coaching tenure], the impact of injuries is going to hurt anybody in college basketball.

“When you look at what we’ve went through the last year and a half, you sit there and wonder when is it going to stop. But you come back and go to work and get after it and start playing better basketball.”

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