Start spreading the news: TCU men’s basketball players are in a New York state of mind and consider themselves capable of reaching the NIT semifinals in Madison Square Garden later this month.
To make that a reality, the Horned Frogs (19-15) must win their first three games in the tournament, starting with Wednesday’s opening matchup against Fresno State (20-12) in Schollmaier Arena (7 p.m., ESPN3).
TCU enters as a No. 4 seed, one spot better than Fresno State, and will be making its first NIT appearance since 2005. To the four seniors on the roster, all of whom have vivid memories of the Frogs’ winless record against Big 12 opponents during the 2013-14 season, their first taste of postseason play in their college careers qualifies as a pinch-me moment.
“You look at past TCU basketball history and see the position we’ve been in at this time of year, season after season. This beats nothing,” guard Brandon Parrish said. “We’re glad to be here and see the opportunity ... to go see the Garden. Go see Times Square. If we handle our business the right way, that could be us.”
The fascination with reaching the Big Apple extends to the younger players on the roster. Alex Robinson, a sophomore from Mansfield Timberview who began his college career at Texas A&M, is motivated to make his first trip to New York – just like Parrish, a senior from Arlington Seguin who owns the TCU career record for games played (131).
Just getting the chance to play in Madison Square Garden is awesome. I feel like we’re playing at a high level right now. If we can continue that stretch in the NIT, we’ve got a very good chance of winning it all.
TCU guard Alex Robinson
“Every great player has played in Madison Square Garden, so that’s very exciting,” Robinson said. “Just getting the chance to play in Madison Square Garden is awesome. I feel like we’re playing at a high level right now. If we can continue that stretch in the NIT, we’ve got a very good chance of winning it all.”
TCU’s confidence was boosted by last week’s run to the semifinals of the Big 12 conference tournament. The highlight of the three games in Kansas City, Mo: an 85-82 upset of top-ranked Kansas that marked the first victory over the nation’s No. 1 team in program history.
Parrish said the team’s confidence level has soared since that milestone triumph. First-year coach Jamie Dixon, a former TCU player, said he still is in the process of returning all of his congratulatory text messages from that upset. Parrish, who contributed 12 points in the upset of the Jayhawks (28-4), pointed to that contest as a bonding moment for players who headed to the Big 12 tournament on a seven-game losing streak.
“We’d been through a rough stretch,” Parrish said. “To go in there and play that way helps our whole team morale. Guys who might have been doubting things, they’re back on board. We all believe in each other now. Nobody else in the NIT has beaten the No. 1 team in the nation. Se we feel like we have a beautiful opportunity in front of us.”
Dixon, a point guard on an NIT team (1986) and an NCAA Tournament team (1987) during his TCU playing career, understands the disappointment that goes with NIT bids. All of them go to teams that would rather be competing in March Madness but narrowly missed at-large bids.
12 Years since TCU last played in the NIT, during the 2005 season. TCU won two games in the NIT that season.
Teams that thrive in the NIT tend to be led by a motivated group of seniors. Dixon said TCU qualifies with its four-player contingent of Parrish, Karviar Shepherd, Michael Williams and Chris Washburn.
“A big thing in the NIT is how your seniors handle it. I know our seniors are excited about playing,” Dixon said. “This is a big step for them ... They’ve laid some groundwork for this program. Now, we’ve got to go and look at building on that.”
The Frogs will be facing a Fresno State team that has won six of its last seven games and recorded two regular-season victories over Nevada (28-6), the NCAA-bound winner of the Mountain West tournament. TCU won two of its three games in last week’s conference tournament and is assured of its highest victory total (19) in five seasons as a Big 12 member.
A big thing in the NIT is how your seniors handle it. I know our seniors are excited about playing.
TCU men’s basketball coach Jamie Dixon
But that is not a rich enough legacy in the estimation of Shepherd, a 6-foot-11 forward who has averaged 4.6 points and 2.5 rebounds this season.
“Twenty wins would be awesome,” Shepherd said, citing a milestone untouched by a TCU team since the Frogs finished 21-14 with their last NIT squad in 2005. “It means a lot. I’ve been here four years and wanted to go to the postseason. Now, it’s finally happening. As seniors, we talk about it all the time. It’s very special. We stuck it out together and we made it work.”
Next goal: A trip to New York to play in Madison Square Garden. TCU can take its first step along that path Wednesday in Fort Worth.
TCU men vs. Fresno State
7 p.m. Wednesday