Mac Engel

TCU basketball must sign stars or it will remain irrelevant

TCU forward Chris Washburn (33) goes strong to the basket against Kansas forward Cheick Diallo (13) and forward Perry Ellis, right, Saturday afternoon, at Schollmaier Arena.
TCU forward Chris Washburn (33) goes strong to the basket against Kansas forward Cheick Diallo (13) and forward Perry Ellis, right, Saturday afternoon, at Schollmaier Arena. Special to the Star-Telegram

Twenty seconds into TCU’s basketball game against Kansas the Horned Frogs led 10-5, per the scoreboard.

Then the scoreboard was fixed and soon enough the seventh-ranked Jayhawks blew out the painfully overmatched Horned Frogs.

We are four years into the Trent Johnson tenure as TCU’s head coach and the pinnacle remains its historic win against KU — in 2013.

It’s 2016, and while nobody should expect a miracle from the hardest coaching job in Power 5 basketball, the only visible improvements about this program since 2013 are the facilities.

The biggest cheers from the home fans at TCU’s glittering Schollmaier Arena were not for the basketball team in its 75-56 loss but rather for former quarterback Andy Dalton and the TCU baseball team.

TCU will always be a football school, but if it wants to take the next step as an athletic department its men’s basketball team will have to surpass the baseball team. Having a good baseball team is a feather, whereas, after football, the team the school wants to win is always men’s basketball.

College baseball teams are guaranteed financial losers, whereas basketball teams generate revenue and can make a difference in donations and applications.

From College Station to Nacogdoches to Dallas to Austin to Waco to Arlington, the great state a Texas is enjoying a basketball resurgence, yet TCU is stuck at the back of the line.

The only way this changes is if the head coach signs real talent.

Johnson has two years remaining on his initial contract, which means he will, and should, return next season. But next season Johnson will effectively be coaching for his job. Right now his long-term future looks tenuous.

The level of apathy toward this program is alarming and justified. We live in a football state, yet Baylor, SMU, Texas and Texas A&M have managed to build competitive basketball teams. TCU has never managed to solve this riddle, and as a result the tired expression “nobody cares” is sadly appropriate to describe the attitude toward this team.

Not until December did TCU finally give Johnson all of the toys needed to win in the Big 12; he played in a high school gym while the new place was under construction.

Johnson said when he arrived in Fort Worth that in college basketball it just takes a couple of guys to make a difference. He’s right. He also has not found those two guys.

The indictment is not Johnson’s 48-71 record at TCU but the progress of those he has recruited since he arrived, most notably juniors Brandon Parrish and Kaviar Shepherd.

Shepherd was the jewel of Johnson’s first recruiting class, a player offered a scholarship by Kansas, but he did not start Saturday against Kansas. He’s decent role player on a good team, and an overmatched player on a bad team.

Parrish has progressed, but he needs a creator to give him space.

“I’m definitely surprised,” Parrish said when I asked him if he was surprised at the current state of the program. “I think about it day in and day out. We want to see it go in the right direction.”

Right now the “best” player on the team is a transfer from UTEP, forward Chris Washburn Jr. Good teams’ best players can’t be transfers from UTEP.

TCU has had several key players injured over the past two years, most notably forward Kenrich Williams, but don’t buy it as the reason this program remains at the bottom.

The coaches all change at TCU and the same problem remains — they don’t have players who can create their own shots and finish. TCU has parts, but they need a star or two.

TCU’s best player under Johnson is still former North Crowley guard Kyan Anderson, who had committed to the program when Jim Christian was the head coach. The reason Anderson committed was because TCU’s inclusion in the Big 12, which provided him the chance to play close to home.

Anderson was a Big 12-caliber point guard who made his teammates better and he could finish. Too bad his eligibility expired last year.

“I know I’m a big a Trent fan,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I’ve been through it; we lost 18 in a row when I was at Oral Roberts; it’s hard to get over the hump, and it seems like right when you are getting close something negative will happen. The injury [to Williams] was a big loss; when you are fighting an uphill battle there is less margin for error. You need some positive momentum. From an outsider’s perspective the program is in much better shape. They’ve got good young players.”

Johnson is the guy you would gladly want your son to play for; he’s an old-school, no-nonsense coach who doesn’t suffer fools, excuses and he demands his kid be responsible. He doesn’t play around and or “play the game.” His players are polite, and if they get into trouble, he’s bringing the hammer.

It is his well-meaning qualities that may be his undoing at TCU.

High major college basketball is a brutal game where the majority of success is won in recruiting. The only way TCU becomes a better program, and its athletic department takes another step, is if Johnson can sign a few stars rather than just nice guys.

Baylor, Texas A&M, Texas and SMU have shown it can be done; now TCU just needs to do it.

If Trent Johnson can do that, the home scoreboard won’t need to be fixed.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

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