Was TCU forward Desmond Bane really going to try and dunk in this spot?
Nobody would have blamed him if he had taken a safer route to the basket Monday. West Virginia, or “Press Virginia” as it’s known, has an uncanny ability to make opposing players rethink just about everything.
Mountaineers forward Sagaba Konate, who might best be described as a rim-protecting leviathan, happened to be pushing hard to get back on defense. The 19-year-old sophomore has recorded 62 blocks in 19 games, good for the sixth best average in the country.
With a minute to go in the first-half, Konate came flying towards the basket, but Bane took off and stuck to a flight plan that targeted the front of the rim. Fans in the sold-out Schollmaier Arena inhaled and a few reporters actually chuckled at his audacity. Only the massive swat everyone was bracing for never landed.
Bane finished a two-handed flush as Konate’s 6-foot-8, 260-pound frame flew right past him, and the arena let out an odd mix of relief and cheers.
The finish was an exclamation point on a 9-0 run that gave the Horned Frogs their first lead since its short-handed roster looked like it was starting to succumb to the pressure of WVU head coach Bob Huggins’ trademark press defense.
That run energized TCU’s coaches, players and fans, all of whom would go on to bask in the glory of the team’s eventual 82-73 upset-win, one that may have preserved the team’s NCAA Tournament chances.
Bane’s dunk didn’t just represent a breakthrough on the court though. It also served as a microcosm for every person who believed that TCU basketball could become good enough to eventually make the refurbished Schollmaier Arena a home for an eventual Big 12 contender.
“For our fans I think I am even more excited because they deserve this,” TCU head coach Jamie Dixon said. “Our students were terrific and they’ve been unbelievable. And I am kind of overwhelmed by that.”
Season of sellout games
All of those that have suffered through decades of hoops struggles around these parts were probably a little bit surprised by the atmosphere on Monday.
“The environment this year is really special, especially for big games,” said senior Byron Myles, a member of the TCU pep band. “We’re here for spirit and will be here regardless, but it’s so much better when everybody is really into it, which people have been this year.”
To be fair, when the Horned Frogs hosted then-No. 9 Kansas and then-No. 12 Oklahoma earlier this season, the arena had plenty of juice. On StubHub, tickets were going for between $100 and $300 each, and both games were true sellouts, as fans packed the arena to its full 6,800-person capacity.
The WVU win was just different. All of the students had returned from Christmas break and, along with the rest of the arena, fully committed to providing their team with a real home-court advantage. Eleven NBA scouts were credentialed.
The game was also the first time that TCU had hosted ESPN’s Big Monday. In the student section, there were newspaper props, a gigantic and moveable cut-out of Dixon and plenty of noise. Members of the Horned Frogs’ swim team even stripped down to their Speedos and stood right next to a corner of the court.
In an emotional game that WVU fought to get back into, the crowd made sure the team never gave in and the players noticed.
“They’re huge,” TCU junior guard Alex Robinson said. “We’re not an extremely large institution. When I came here, that was one thing that sold me was the family environment here, being able to connect with them and feeling their energy. And that really helped us with this win.”
The reason Monday night was even possible was because of Dixon.
Before an impressive career as the head coach at Pitt, where he led the Panthers to 11 tournament appearances in 13 seasons and a Big East championship in 2008, he was an All-Southwest Conference guard for TCU, graduating in 1987.
TCU enjoyed moderate success in the years that followed, particularly during Billy Tubbs’ tenure from 1994-2002. But things got much worst after he left the university.
In the 14 seasons from 2002-2016, three different head coaches combined to go 181-260.
“It wasn’t hard to find a ticket here for a long, long time,” said Elizabeth Gleaton, who attended TCU during the late 1980’s. “Even with a small arena it was still obvious when students and fans never showed up.”
“It was a huge deal because Pittsburgh has been a great program forever and everybody was excited to get a guy who knew what he was doing to come back here and change this culture,” said TCU junior Wade Schmit.
But how do you grab the attention of the Horned Frog faithful, and keep it, long enough for them not to start thinking of the following football season? This is Texas, after all.
The simple answer: win.
Dixon improved TCU by five wins in his first season, going 17-14 a year after Trent Johnson led the team to a 12-21 record. That even included a program-altering upset of Kansas, the top-ranked team in the country, during the Big 12 Tournament.
The ride wasn’t over, though. A few weeks later, the Horned Frogs ripped off five straight wins to capture their first-ever NIT championship.
Wait list for tickets
Dixon would have never returned if it weren’t for the vision and hard work put forth by former TCU Athletic Director Chris Del Conte, current TCU AD Jeremiah Donati and the various sub-groups of the athletic department. Earlier this fall, Del Conte was hired as the athletic director at Texas.
Back in 2014, Donati, who served as executive director of the Frog Club and then as an associate athletic director, was the point person on the campaign for a $72 million renovation to Schollmaier that was completed right before the start of the 2015-2016 season.
Those renovations proved to Dixon that the program was serious about turning things around, particularly from a resources perspective. Donati was also involved in the financial process of bringing him back to TCU.
“Personally, it’s been huge because all the naysayers when we were raising money said ‘you can’t do this, you’ll never build it, TCU basketball will never be good, you’ll never get a good coach, others have tried and failed,’ that was motivation, it’s what kept me up at night,” Donati said.
“It’s what drove myself and our fundraising team to do it, because we felt like if we built it the fans, coaches and players would come.”
For the most part, the fans have come.
Home games against traditional conference powers have seen tickets range from $150 to as much as $300 dollars. Tickets for the the team’s upcoming showdowns against teams like No. 14 Texas Tech aren’t much cheaper, with prices $75 to $225 on StubHub.
Even less appealing matchups against teams like Kansas State and Oklahoma State are only available on StubHub and are currently listed between $25 and $100.
The improvements in season-ticket sales are even more stark. After the team’s strong finish to end last season, the ticket office distributed all 5,500 seats, first to those who wanted to renew their season tickets, and then to new customers. Now, there’s actually a wait list, just like there is for club seats in Amon G. Carter Stadium.
“We came to several games last year and they just kept winning, so we decided to get season tickets for this year,” Gleaton said.
Despite a high set of goals, Donati had high praise for the ticket office, Frog Club and the marketing department.
“We knew that we had a tradition of losing seasons that we weren’t going to be able to demand fair-market value for ticket pricing if we didn’t put a good product out there,” Donati said.
“While I still believe we are short of true fair-market value, we’ve taken huge strides in the past two or three years, and so I am pleased with where we are.”
Bad, then great
That 2017 NIT run set the stage for a strong 12-0 start to the 2017-2018 regular season and the program’s highest-ever ranking in an AP poll.
But, not everything in this expedited program turnaround has gone according to plan.
The new year brought with it the cold reality of the Big 12 schedule as TCU lost four of its first five conference games by a combined 11 points (that included an overtime loss at OU and a double-OT defeat at Texas).
The agony of those losses transferred into utter elation in the victory over WVU though.
It took Dixon 15 minutes to arrive at the podium postgame to take questions, and somehow, he still seemed a little bit winded by the celebration.
A short while later, he regained his usual composure and exuded the matter-of-fact confidence that he’s infected this program with since he arrived.
“That’s the kind of home court I envisioned coming back here,” he said. “That’s the one we wanted.”
TCU at Vanderbilt
3 p.m., Saturday, ESPN2