Any basketball game is a challenge for TCU these days.
That’s why the Horned Frogs’ Chris Washburn looked at Saturday’s visit by the Tennessee Volunteers, part of ESPN’s Big 12/SEC Challenge, and felt it was “a need-to-win game.”
“Just the way everything has been going,” Washburn explained after TCU turned a 14-point halftime deficit into a 75-63 victory. “We’d lost three or four straight. Wait — five? Sorry.
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“And that’s why we felt we needed to win this game.”
The Frogs’ last victory was a home upset of Texas three weekends ago. Last week TCU (10-11) had to play 14th-ranked Iowa State, followed by a less-than-welcoming return trip to Austin.
This week — gulp — the Horned Frogs have games against No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 4 Kansas.
And ESPN called the Volunteers, 11th in the Southeastern Conference standings, the challenge?
Afterward, their Saturday comeback completed, you didn’t find coach Trent Johnson or his players minimizing the victory over a fellow 10-11 team.
“Any win is a good win for us,” Johnson suggested, “considering how we’ve been playing.”
After a poor-shooting, passively-defended first half, Johnson’s Frogs responded after the intermission. They began to aggressively defend at the 3-point line. They played hard. Defensive stops started turning into transition baskets.
Any win is a good win for us, considering how we’ve been playing.
TCU coach Trent Johnson
By the midpoint of the second half, TCU had narrowed Tennessee’s advantage to two points. When Malique Trent made two free throws with 7:59 left, the Frogs gained the lead, never to let it go.
Texas’ ex-coach Rick Barnes, in his first season in Knoxville, watched as an old bad habit returned.
“When it starts swinging the wrong way for us,” Barnes said, “we have a couple of guys that go and hide and put everything on KP [Kevin Punter].
“We just haven’t handled adversity well. We put too much pressure on KP.”
The Vols’ own next “challenge”? That would be Kentucky on Tuesday night.
“Oh, I voted like all the coaches,” Barnes said with a noticeable sigh. “I voted not to play [the Challenge] at this time of year.
“But ESPN has been pushing for this for a couple of years. They want the calendar filled. To them it’s a great filler between the NFL’s week off and the Super Bowl. And ESPN pretty much gets to do what they want to do.”
Most college basketball fans, though, I’m guessing, like the late-January novelty of a conference-versus-conference measuring stick. The Big 12 lived up to its marquee billing Saturday, with its teams winning seven of the 10 Challenge games.
It's just totally different for our league than the Big 12, because the round-robin they play is a grind.
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes
Coaches might revolt, but if ESPN truly has a big stick, the network would do well to push for midseason “challenge weekends” in all the major sports.
Barnes, however, has been on both sides of Saturday’s showdown. He knows how talented the Big 12 is and how tough the league’s round-robin home-and-away schedule can be.
“It’s just totally different for our league than the Big 12,” Barnes said, “because the round-robin they play is a grind. Believe me, I know.”
TCU’s Johnson echoed that opinion.
“This league is unforgiving,” TCU’s Johnson said. “College basketball is unforgiving.
“Our reward for beating this team is we have a day off, and then we have to come back Tuesday and play the No. 1 team in the country.”
Or, as ESPN would call it, “normal programming.”
In an already challenging season, though, this was one that the Frogs were glad to have met.