TCU men's basketball coach Trent Johnson senses a wait-and-see attitude from Horned Frogs fans. That's no surprise. That's been the prevailing point of view for almost a decade.
The skepticism surrounding TCU basketball as it moves into the Big 12 Conference, although much of it optimistic, is understandable. It has been years since the program garnered truly inspired preseason expectations even without a move into a major basketball power conference in the equation.
"I think people are sort of sitting in the back waiting," said Johnson, who took over for Jim Christian on April 5. "There's some excitement, but also there's some curiosity and a wait-and-see attitude: Can we compete? Can we get it done at this level? And that's good. I know what it's like and I know what we're getting into."
Johnson, who won at Stanford in the Pac-12 and at LSU in the Southeastern Conference, knows just how tough Big 12 competition will be, especially in the inaugural season. "But for this institution and this program athletically it's time, in my opinion," Johnson said, "to take on the challenge of the Big 12."
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In many ways, the change in coach and conference signal a makeover for the program. TCU hopes to announce renovations to 51-year old Daniel-Meyer Coliseum later this year. Other upgrades to the basketball facilities are in the works.
To compete with the high-caliber programs of the Big 12, TCU needs every conceivable upgrade it can muster, and even then it might not be enough against long-standing national powers such as Kansas.
But competing with Kansas doesn't need to be the goal, at least not this season. Many TCU fans never fully realized how strong Mountain West basketball had become with top 20 programs -- including BYU, UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico -- competing for league titles the last five years. But from top to bottom, the Big 12 poses a much tougher challenge with Kansas, Texas and Baylor fighting for league supremacy and six teams with at least 20 wins this year and three with 30. And that's not counting Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, which had down years but are routinely stellar programs.
"I've watched all the teams when I came into the league that really weren't that committed to basketball," said 15-year Texas coach Rick Barnes. "Because of the success teams have had, it makes everybody else want to have a piece of the pie, so they put more emphasis on it, put more into it. Our league has been so good for a long time now. I think it's going to do for TCU what it has done for other teams in the league in terms of realizing what you've got to do to compete. If you don't, you realize you're not going to be very successful. I think it's going to improve everything about their program, in every sport."
Johnson is not conceding a rough first year in the league, but he's also seen a lot of top-echelon basketball in his 13 years as a head coach. He knows what it takes to win in a tough conference.
"I don't like the word 'rebuilding.' That gets thrown around a lot," he said. "We're trying to be as good as we can in a hurry; we're trying to win now. Hopefully, if we stay healthy, we can compete. I told the team we're trying to get better every day and not worrying about what's happened in the past, whether it be yesterday or last year because nothing is promised, nothing is guaranteed."