The men’s college basketball season begins this week, with TCU preparing for a Friday debut of the Jamie Dixon era at Schollmaier Arena.
The Horned Frogs’ new coach, a former TCU player who led Pitt to a combined mark of 328-123 over the last 13 seasons, takes over a team that finished 12-21 last year. He will be working with a roster that includes seven newcomers and nine returnees heading into Friday’s 6 p.m. tipoff in Fort Worth against the University of St. Thomas.
Dixon and his players envision making an immediate impact on the Big 12 despite being picked to finish last in the conference in October’s preseason poll of league coaches. To earn the program’s first postseason tournament berth since the 2011-12 season, the Frogs are counting on fresh energy provided by a new coaching staff and an influx of new players.
Around the Lone Star State, TCU is far from alone in focusing on fresh wrinkles to improve the win-loss record this season. Here’s what’s new across the state:
New at TCU
Jamie Dixon, coach: After taking teams to the NCAA Tournament in 11 of his 13 seasons at Pitt, Dixon inherits a program that has posted an 8-64 conference mark in four years of Big 12 membership and won its last NCAA Tournament game in 1987, a 76-60 victory over Marshall when Dixon played for the Frogs. But none of that matters to Dixon as he prepares to build his own legacy at TCU by leveraging last year’s $72 million upgrade to Schollmaier Arena and the Frogs’ status as a member of the Big 12 — the nation’s highest-rated RPI conference the past two seasons.
“You can sell that to recruits,” Dixon said. “We’re starting over. We’re a new program for so many reasons, and I think it’s just the best way for us to look at it.”
Jaylen Fisher, point guard: The top-rated signee of Dixon’s initial recruiting class, Fisher also is the highest-rated men’s basketball signee in school history (No. 34 nationally, ESPN). The 6-foot-2 guard from Arlington, Tenn., has a knack for distributing the ball.
“Jaylen’s very good; he’s what we needed,” Dixon said. “Point guards win college basketball games and ... I think he might be as good a point guard as there was last year. He’s the guy that wants to give other guys shots. He’s an amazing teammate, and that’s what’s great to see.”
Bigger crowds: TCU has sold more than 4,300 season tickets, a school record, breaking last year’s mark of 3,700. The potential for sellouts in the 6,800-seat arena inspires veteran players. TCU senior guard Michael Williams said: “Playing in front of a sold-out arena, that’s what the goal is in the Big 12. It’s nice we’re starting a new trend at TCU.”
Veterans back in the mix: In addition to the influx of freshmen, TCU adds a pair of proven performers who did not play last season. Kenrich Williams, a 6-7 guard, missed last year with a knee injury after averaging 8.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game for the Frogs in 2014-15. Guard Alex Robinson, a transfer from Texas A&M, also will be eligible after sitting out last season. A Mansfield Timberview graduate, Robinson averaged 5.2 points and 18.8 minutes per game for the Aggies in a reserve role in 2014-15.
“I believe we have 13 guys that can play,” said guard Brandon Parrish, a senior from Arlington Seguin who started all 33 games last season. “If coach wants to go 8- or 10-deep, we can do it. We could have a different guy step up every night.”
Up-tempo offense: Although Dixon has a well-deserved reputation for building strong defensive teams, players insist he has installed an offensive system that will be far more up-tempo than the structured approach TCU used the past four seasons under predecessor Trent Johnson.
“It’s real fast. We get into our offense real quick,” Williams said. “We get a rebound and we’re out of there.”
Parrish said Dixon has been “more of a player’s coach for us. … He’s given us a lot of freedom to do the things that he thinks we do best.”
New across Texas
Baylor’s top newcomer: Baylor point guard Manu Lecomte, a transfer from Miami who grew up in Belgium, was selected as the Big 12 preseason newcomer of the year in balloting by league coaches. Lecomte started 40 of 71 games in his two seasons with the Hurricanes, averaging 7.9 points and 1.8 assists per game as a sophomore in the 2014-15 season. He sat out last season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules and projects to impact a Baylor team seeking its fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Baylor coach Scott Drew said the Bears have “a good track record” with transfers, noting that Ekpe Udoh became the sixth overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft after leading the Bears to the Elite Eight in his lone season in Waco after transferring from Michigan.
Five-star freshman: Of all the newcomers throughout the Lone Star State, none come more highly touted than Texas freshman Jarrett Allen, a five-star signee who is 6-foot-11, 235 pounds and projects to play multiple positions. Allen, who played at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Round Rock, will play primarily at power forward, but coach Shaka Smart said he will see time at center and possibly small forward because he has such a strong perimeter game for a big man.
“He’s a phenomenal player, and he’s only getting better and better,” Smart said. “He’s a rare blend of a guy that is very long and athletic and has great size. He also has very good touch around the basket and just has some great natural instincts. He’s going to make a big impact right away.”
Trio of transfers: Texas Tech coach Chris Beard, who takes over a team that made the NCAA Tournament last season, has fortified his roster with three graduate transfers who have immediate eligibility. The list includes forward Thomas Brandsma, who played for Beard last season at Arkansas-Little Rock, as well as forward Anthony Livingston (Arkansas State) and guard Giovanni McLean (Quinnipiac).
“All three of those guys, we look to contribute early and be a big part of our team. Not only in stats and production, but also in leadership,” said Beard, who takes over a 19-13 team that may be much better than preseason projections (T-7, per Big 12 coaches poll).
Elevated expectations at A&M: Texas A&M shared last year’s SEC regular-season title with Kentucky, won a school-record 28 games and reached the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament behind four senior starters who no longer are part of the program. But heightened expectations remain, thanks to the team’s tandem of 6-foot-10 stalwarts Tyler Davis and Tonny Trocha-Morelos. The big question is in the backcourt, where the Aggies must lean heavily on two newcomers: freshman point guard Caleb Smith and senior J.C. Hampton, a graduate transfer from Lipscomb who averaged 15.9 points per game last season in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Title talk at UT Arlington: The Mavericks return their top six scorers from a 24-11 team that won road games last year at Memphis and Ohio State. Included is forward Kevin Hervey, who averaged 18.1 points and 9.8 rebounds through 16 games before a torn ACL ended his season. UTA earned the favorite’s nod in the Sun Belt Conference preseason poll and, frankly, is the Dallas-Fort Worth school most likely to play its way into the NCAA Tournament. Key roster additions include 7-1 center Link Kabadyundi, a junior college transfer who began his college career at TCU, and freshman point guard D.J. Bryant. UTA’s only NCAA Tournament appearance came in 2008.