FORT WORTH — TCU’s men’s basketball team embarks on its second consecutive journey in the NCAA Tournament in Denver on Friday night.
Last season, the Horned Frogs earned their first NCAA Tournament win since 1987 under Coach Jamie Dixon. They very nearly upset No.1-seeded Arizona to make the Sweet 16 as the Wildcats escaped in overtime.
“It was our motivation the entire year,” senior forward Chuck O’Bannon told the media Tuesday as he recalled the end of last season. “Still to this day, we talk about that last game, and we just want to make another run in the tournament and go much deeper.
“I want to say Coach Dixon brought it up immediately after the game,” O’Bannon elaborated. “Guys came into the locker room in tears; lots of emotions going on. Then, Coach Dixon brought up the fact that what we did was special. Nobody expected it, and next year could be even more special.”
The draw is much the same this year — similar starting time, playing out West, and the chance to play a perennial powerhouse in the second round — but there is one catch. TCU will not know who it is actually playing until late Wednesday night, when they will know who won a First Four play-in game between Arizona State and Nevada.
“Obviously a little unique with preparation,” Dixon said during a media session on Tuesday. “It’s rare that you’re in that situation. Not knowing who you’re playing is a unique thing, but we’re handling it.
“Quick turnaround,” Dixon added. We’ve got guys working on each team. For them, it’s not much of a difference, and we wouldn’t jump onto an opponent on a Monday for playing on Friday anyway.”
“We’re focused in on two opponents,” he later explained. “Come Wednesday night, we’ll be on one opponent. It’s late Wednesday night, but we’ll have Thursday and Friday to do what we normally do.
“We’re going to play [a] good [team], whoever we’re playing. If they’re playing two days before, you’ve got to be ready.”
Despite the circumstances, TCU feels more prepared for the tournament this time around, thanks to experience and battling adversity all year long.
“After being together and having another year, we have that team chemistry,” explained O’Bannon. “We have a lot more experience [and] guys are more mature, so it just makes end-of-game situations easier.”
“We’ve played through a lot of adversity. We’ve had guys go in and out all year,” he continued. “So it just shows how much we can make it through. A lot of wins we had weren’t with a full team, which is actually pretty surprising. It’s just really the next man stepping up. Really just get back to it.”
The Horned Frogs also believe that playing a challenging Big 12 schedule has helped prepare them for March.
“I’d say 20 games in the Big 12 are going to prepare you more than anything,” Dixon remarked. “It’s good people every night. It’s not like we haven’t seen good teams. We’re ready but we’ve got to make some shots.”
“There’s no breaks,” O’Bannon added. “It’s very hard to score, especially when it comes to scouting reports. Guys know what you can do, and they take advantage of that, so it makes it a lot tougher.”
“When you’re playing teams from different conferences that specialize in different things, it helps,” he explained. “It’s going to be beneficial for us.”
TCU is fresh off a run to the Big 12 Tournament semifinals and a close loss to a top-10 Texas team. Dixon believes his team is playing its best basketball and can build off its performance in that tournament.
“We played well,” Dixon told reporters Tuesday. “I think we can verify [that]. [We] talked on the stats, broke down that game. We just didn’t convert in transition whereas they finished around the rim and that was really the biggest difference.”
“Our points per possession in transition was by far the lowest we’ve had this year,” he added. “We’re the best in the country, and we had an abnormally little number. We just didn’t convert. We had open shots, and some decisions weren’t great, and that was the difference.”
“I thought we could win the tournament. That was the mentality.”
TCU made that run without starting center Eddie Lampkin Jr, who entered the transfer portal earlier this week. While the run was encouraging and brings hope for the NCAA Tournament, Dixon admits he has had to adjust to using a smaller lineup.
“Things kind of adjusted on their own,” the coach explained. “We got Rondell [Walker] back. Obviously Mike [Miles] was out, and Eman[uel Miller] was out. JaKobe [Coles] has played the five and done some really good things for us. So we got different [but] we’ve always had the versatility.”
“It’s just you lose versatility when guys are out,” he continued. “[Sha]Hada [Wells] got better as the year went on, and Rondell played really good minutes, and we played them a lot.”
“I think Rondell is giving us something that allows us to play maybe smaller and quicker, which was one of our challenges — [using] smaller, quicker perimeter guys or three- and four-men. He gives us the ability to do that, and we have another option in that regard, so that’s been good.”
Regardless of the lineup being used, TCU will lean on Miles to lead the way.
“Mike’s been playing really well,” Dixon said on Tuesday. “I thought the decision-making has been good and shot selection good. We’ve got to make sure he’s getting his 15 shots or so. We’ve done that on a pretty consistent basis.”
“Mike attracts double teams, and that helps everyone,” O’Bannon added. “That means someone is always open, so Mike, being a player that is attracting the attention that he gets, that helps guys all around.”
Arizona State and Nevada play at 8:10 p.m. CT Wednesday to determine who will advance to the Round of 64. The winner will play TCU in Denver at 9:05 p.m. CT Friday.