Mac Engel

TCU’s NCAA hopes return

TCU guard Desmond Bane (1) celebrates with fans after an 82-73 win over West Virginia on Monday.
TCU guard Desmond Bane (1) celebrates with fans after an 82-73 win over West Virginia on Monday. Special to the Star-Telegram

The college basketball season is more than halfway over, and TCU is ranked ahead of Kentucky.

Don’t bother where that AP ranking is exactly because, just like Kentucky, this season is not playing exactly according to plan for TCU.

Now, historically, that plan has been to lose sometimes as many as 20 games, while entertaining hundreds of apathetic fans at home games.

The new plan was to actually make the NCAA Tournament.

The new plan under coach Jamie Dixon began with an NIT title. The new plan began with five returning starters this season. The new plan began with being ranked third in the Big 12 preseason coaches poll.

(Coaches ... what do they ever know?)

The plan was wonderful until the Big 12 portion of the season hit, and now TCU could unveil a banner for painful losses, and as result just dropped of the Top 25. But they are ahead of Kentucky.

If TCU’s grand vision of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998 had any prayer of actually succeeding it had to start including some real results, preferably on Big Monday against No. 7 West Virginia.

Before an ESPN Big Monday audience, the game was a dog.

In this case, a good dog.

TCU smoked West Virginia inside an energetic, and sold-out, Schollmaier Arena for easily its most impressive win of the season, 82-73.

The game wasn’t that close. Memo to TCU fans: There was no reason to storm the floor, as they did after the win. It’s January. Alas, when your team has never defeated too many teams in any month, you rush the court when you can.

The score was the blowout TCU’s team needed not only for morale, but its resume to indeed make the NCAA Tourney. For the first time against a quality opponent in the Big 12, the game wasn’t close.

The Horned Frogs improved to a still dreadful 3-5 record in the Big 12, but beating up West Virginia is a pretty feather the team had to have.

“I was concerned because I watched their conference games and they are a good team,” Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said. “They are extremely well coached.”

Until Monday, TCU had played a string of close games against quality opponents only to lose nearly all of them. TCU’s lone quality Big 12 win came at Baylor.

TCU is not going to get into the NCAA Tournament with six conference wins, and a truckload of two-point losses.

The Frogs are improved, but they are not going to get away with winning any less than eight Big 12 games and expect to make the NCAA Tournament. They can’t think seven is enough.

Their nonconference schedule, which they ran through, does not have the type of eye-catching win the mercurial selection committee prefers to sell for the field of 68.

Because that is what this TCU season is entirely about. Even if it is TCU, which for more than 10 years was the worst job in high major college basketball (Dixon likes it when I say that), a return to the NIT is a failure, and the snore that it is for teams that expect to make the real tourney.

Normally, if TCU made the NIT in consecutive years it would mean the head coach would get a raise.

TCU should be an NCAA team this season, but its start in the Big 12 is so bad the Frogs are going to have to find a way to steal some wins in hard places. Places where the refs tend to see the game differently. Places where the home court can be preposterously unfair advantage.

Like Lawrence, Kansas. Like Lubbock, where Texas Tech is becoming a national player under coach Chris Beard. Like Ames, Iowa. Like Morgantown, West Virginia.

TCU’s talent, coaching and ability may belong in the tournament, but they won’t much matter without the wins.

Monday night’s game was the first time in the Big 12 season the Frogs delivered the type of results the head coach, the team, and the athletic department expected.

The game started ominously when TCU forward Kenrich Williams’ dunk attempt was thrown right into his face by West Virginia shot-blocking Godzilla, Sagaba Konate.

Things began to turn a few minutes later when Williams dunked on Maciej Bender, and later in the first half TCU forward Desmond Bane did the mathematically impossible and slipped in a dunk on Konate.

Then the arena started to jump, and when TCU’s Alex Robinson threw in a 35-foot 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer, which was set up by a brutal, but legal, screen from center Vladimir Brodziansky, the Frogs were well on their way.

Turns out the 3 was late and didn’t count, but the momentum it created was all good.

TCU’s defense, which had been consistently bad in Big 12 play, finally did something; West Virginia went nearly eight minutes without scoring in the second half.

Credit Brodziansky for some of the defense. Vlad doesn’t always play as big as his 6-foot-10 frame, but against West Virginia he was a shot blocker and rim protector his team has to have to beat good teams.

“We have been saying that he doesn’t change shots like he did last year. We needed more of that,” Dixon said. “He was more of a presence. He was a guy who was zoning up and changing some shots. It was something we needed.”

TCU can score against good teams, but its defense against good teams has been the issue.

The Frogs still lack some interior nastiness, and this team is not a typical Jamie Dixon group from his Pitt days that could be ruthless defenders. They are at least two players away from being among the an upper tier threat, but they are better than their Big 12 record showed until Monday’s game.

TCU is NCAA Tournament caliber good. They just need NCAA Tournament caliber wins.

Monday was just that.

Which is all “part of the plan.”

Mac Engel: @macengelprof

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