TCU sees NIT title as launching pad to deep NCAA run in 2018

TCU capped its first season under men’s basketball coach Jamie Dixon with a long list of program milestones, topped by an NIT championship that provided a pinch-me moment for long-suffering fans.

But as the Horned Frogs left Madison Square Garden after Thursday night’s 88-56 rout of Georgia Tech with a trophy in hand and a 24-win season in the record books, most of the postgame focus centered on the next step.

Although the Frogs were thrilled to win an NIT title that marked the first postseason tournament championship in school history, they have no desire to defend their crown next year in New York. Instead, TCU plans to start next season as a Top 25 team with expectations for an NCAA Tournament berth and, perhaps, a trip to the Sweet 16 or beyond.

Those are the goals that will be attached to this team the next time it takes the floor in Schollmaier Arena because the Frogs return their top six scorers, including all five starters, from a 24-15 squad. They’ll also be adding three November signees from a Top 25 recruiting class, plus heralded redshirt freshman Kouat Noi and other newcomers Dixon and his assistants uncover when they hit the road for another round of recruiting after the NCAA’s Final Four.

Rest assured, TCU coaches will find lots of receptive recruits who have seen the Frogs win an NIT title and defeat top-ranked Kansas on national television within the past three weeks. Such postseason memories curry lots of recruiting favor, particularly when prospects realize they can become teammates with three returning starters who made the all-NIT tournament team (Kenrich Williams, Vladimir Brodziansky, Alex Robinson) and point guard Jaylen Fisher, the highest-rated recruit in program history.

Lest anyone forget: TCU won its last four NIT games by an average margin of 16.8 points without Fisher, an All-Big 12 performer who was sidelined by a broken wrist. Williams, the NIT’s most outstanding player, turned in double-double performances in all five postseason games and finished with 19 for the season. He scored a career-high 25 points in the title game to accompany his 12 rebounds.

“This is special. It’s big for our program and for the school. It’s big because, coming into the season, they had us picked last in the Big 12,” Williams said. “For us to win this, we really proved some people wrong.”

By doing so, TCU proved Dixon is the right coach to lead a program clearly headed in the right direction after last year’s 12-21 record. The 12-win improvement in one season marks the second-largest in school history, eclipsed only by a jump of 13 additional wins from 1922-23 (three wins) to 1923-24 (16 wins).

TCU guard Brandon Parrish, one of four seniors who played his final college game in the Garden, understands what type of challenge will await visiting teams when November arrives at Fort Dixon.

“The sky is the limit for this program,” Parrish said after Thursday’s dominating performance in the NIT title game. “For the young guys this year to have this moment, it’s awesome. I know next year, they’ll be in the NCAA Tournament. And the year after that. And the year after that. Probably for the next 10 or 20 years, I don’t think they’ll miss a tournament. So I love where this program is headed. I’m just glad I was one of the guys to start it.”

What Parrish and his teammates have done, under Dixon’s tutelage, is awaken “a sleeping giant” of a basketball program at TCU, said ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla.

“This is a great launching pad for TCU basketball going forward. They’ll start next year as a top half of the Big 12 type of team,” said Fraschilla, a Dallas resident. “If you’re a local kid, you can get everything you want out of college at TCU, including playing in one of the best leagues in the country. And the most important thing is, Dallas-Fort Worth has got some of the best high school basketball in America right now.”

For the first time in 12 seasons, TCU has a 20-win season. For the first time since the program began in 1908-09, it has a trophy from a postseason tournament. What’s next?

“I think we can do better,” said Fisher, who ended his season by averaging 9.9 points and leading Big 12 freshmen in assists (140). “I feel like we can be the team to beat and that, in years to come, TCU is going to be the next big school.”

That is Dixon’s vision. It’s the vision of TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte, who found a way to bring Dixon back to his alma mater after 13 seasons and 11 NCAA Tournament appearances at Pittsburgh.

As tears flowed and TCU supporters exchanged hugs in Madison Square Garden, Del Conte said: “To be standing here … as the NIT champion is pretty special. It feels so awesome. This is a community win.”

It’s one that Del Conte admitted he did not see coming when Dixon began talking about this team’s NCAA Tournament potential in advance of its Nov. 11 opener against Saint Thomas in Fort Worth.

“Jamie took this team and sat them down and said, ‘You’re good. You’ve got to believe you’re good,’” Del Conte said. “I remember when he was telling me that and I was thinking, ‘If you think that, I’ll believe it.’ I didn’t see what he saw. He saw something special in these guys.”

By the end of March, he delivered the Frogs’ 24th win and an NIT title. But he’s far from satisfied. After taking the final cuts on the ceremonial net and soaking in the cheers of TCU fans in New York, Dixon said all the right things about the significance of an NIT title to a fan base that, until this season, had never seen the Frogs reach the semifinals of a national postseason tournament. He also reiterated his long-term plan.

“Our goal is to get in the NCAA Tournament, go on runs in the NCAA Tournament. That’s what I’m used to doing,” Dixon said. “But you have to take steps. And this is a huge step in the right direction.”

Expect next season’s journey to include a Top 25 ranking, something TCU never achieved this year, as well as a return to the NCAA’s version of March Madness for the first time since 1998. Fraschilla, who spent nine seasons as a college coach, said the carryover factor from an NIT championship should be a huge motivator for TCU’s returning players and incoming recruits.

“Winning postseason games is important to future success. But also, it motivates you to say, ‘I don’t really want to be back in the NIT next year. I want to be in the NCAA Tournament,’” Fraschilla said. “And that’s what this tournament does for teams like TCU. It springboards them on to bigger and better things. This opportunity for those six [high-profile returnees], their workouts this spring, summer and fall are going to be even more lively knowing what they’ve tasted this year.”

And understanding what the next steps could be on TCU’s road to national relevance in college basketball under Dixon.

Jimmy Burch: 817-390-7760, @Jimmy_Burch

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