The Yellow Jackets are taking on the TCU Horned Frogs in tonight’s NIT Championship game (8:00pm ET, ESPN). TCU has had an oddly familiar path to the game, being picked to finish last in their conference under a first-year head coach (former Pitt coach Jamie Dixon) before making some noise in conference play and just missing out on the NCAA Tournament. (Sound familiar?)
We sat down with Jamie Plunkett from SB Nation’s TCU site Frogs O’ War to preview the final opponent of Georgia Tech’s 2016-2017 basketball season, and get his insights on what we’ll see in tonight’s game. You can also check out my answers to his questions at FrogsOWar.com.
FTRS: This TCU team has been really streaky all year, winning and losing games in bunches -- they started the year on an 8-game win streak, they lost 7-straight Big XII games to end the regular season, and now having won 6 of 7 (including a Big XII Tournament win over Kansas). Simply looking at the scores also doesn't seem like they've played a lot of particularly close games -- either winning or losing by multiple possessions most nights. What is it about this team that's caused that?
Some inconsistencies caused by young players and a first year coach have led to an up and down season. True freshman Jaylen Fisher is the highest recruit to sign with the Frogs in school history, and he's been a day one starter. Another true freshman, Desmond Bane, has seen significant playing time all season, and has started in Fisher's absence (broken wrist) during the last three NIT games. They've played incredibly well, but have also made freshmen mistakes. Plus, whenever you have a new coach come in, it takes a bit of time for guys to adjust. Turnovers were somewhat of an issue throughout the season, but the Frogs have done a good job taking care of the ball as of late.
TCU has been streaky from deep and from the free throw line this season, which has made it difficult to close out games a few times this year. If you look at those things during some of their streaks this year, you'll notice an uptick during the wins, and a downturn during the losses.
FTRS: In his first year at the helms, Jamie Dixon has taken this Horned Frogs team from 12-21 (2-16) to 23-15 (6-12) in a much improved, more difficult Big XII. What's been the biggest difference you've seen that contributed to those improved results?
This has a crazy season with Dixon back in town. For those that don't know, TCU is Dixon's alma mater, which may help all those folks who said, "Wait...he left Pitt to go where?" In his introductory press conference, he told everyone that this was not a rebuilding project, and that he expected to win immediately. He gives a lot of credit to his predecessor, Trent Johnson, for that. While Johnson didn't win a lot as head coach, he definitely instilled a sense of pride in this program that had lacked in previous years, and his teams never quit fighting, especially defensively.
Dixon, who is known for his tough defenses, recognized that character and fed into it when he got here. TCU's defense has been fantastic for most of the season, and he's also found an incredible weapon in Vladimir Brodziansky on the offensive end of the floor. Dixon also has the benefit of a healthy Kenrich Williams (a.k.a. Kenny Hustle), who has 19 double-doubles this season, including 14 points and 14 boards (with seven assists) in the NIT semifinal win over Central Florida. Those guys, plus Fisher, Bane, and sophomore guard Alex Robinson, have all contributed to the rise of this program.
And I can't leave this question before I talk about the four seniors on this team. Karviar Shepherd, Mike Williams, Brandon Parrish, and Chris Washburn were all starters at one point in time during their TCU careers, and they've all willingly taken a backseat to some younger guys in order to win games. They stayed through an 0-18 season in conference play, through having to play in a high school gym while the stadium was under construction, through nearly empty stadiums regardless of where they're playing, and they still came in, played hard, and did whatever they were asked to do for this program. TCU wouldn't be where it is this year without their commitment.
FTRS: According to KenPom, TCU was the best team in the country (and the only top-40 team) that didn't make the NCAA Tournament. That said, they settled out as a 4-seed in the NIT, which suggests they weren't even "On the Bubble". What's the feeling around the fan base on where the team ended up relative to their performance this year?
If you had told TCU fans at the beginning of the year that they'd easily make the NIT field, they'd have hugged you and been very happy about it. Yes, this team went just 6-12 in conference play, but based on previous seasons, this season felt vastly different. The arena was full, the team played at a much higher level, and, for the first time in a long time, there was hope around what the program might accomplish.
Sure, there were some big losses this season: SMU in non-conference play, bad losses to Texas Tech and Oklahoma, a bad loss to Auburn, but overall I think fans would say they're pleased with how this thing turned out.
Plus, TCU has also played in some close losses this season that could have completely changed things for them. The Frogs have played in 13 games this season decided by six points or less, and they're 7-6 in those games (all of the losses came in conference play). During that seven-game losing streak they lost to West Virginia by one, Kansas State by one, and Oklahoma State by three, all NCAA Tournament teams, all games the Frogs had legitimate chances to win in the final minute. If TCU turns two of those games into wins (one if it's the WVU game) you're talking about a team that's probably a 9 or 10-seed in the tournament. That's a testament to the strength of the Big 12, that one or two more conference wins would probably have been enough to put them in (and bump Kansas State out).
FTRS: Vladimir Brodziansky leads the team with nearly 14 points per game & 2 blocks per game, and is second on the team with 5.7 rebounds per game. Even more impressive, he's doing it in only 24 minutes per game. Why are his minutes being limited that way, and is there any way to stop him?
Vlad, Destroyer of Worlds, has been a revelation for TCU this season. He's a dominant post player with a beautiful hook shot, and fantastic footwork around the rim. If you're going to let him go one-on-one with your big man, it's probably not going to end well. He put up 18 points and 9 rebounds against the 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall in the NIT Semifinal, because UCF almost refused to double. Doubling him is definitely the way to go. It happened a lot during TCU's big losing streak, but he's become a better passer because of it. There's still room to grow there, but he's easily TCU's biggest consistent offensive threat.
As for the minutes, I think it's a way to keep him fresh at the end of games, as this is his first season as a starter, plus, Karviar Shepherd and Chris Washburn are also capable post players with their own skill sets. Washburn especially has stepped up in a big way throughout the NIT, and he's earned more minutes for himself. The fact that Dixon has cultivated this kind of big man depth out of guys already on the roster is a testament to his coaching ability.
FTRS: When you watch the first 5 minutes of a TCU game, what are the things you're looking for that tell you how the game is going to go? Has that held true in the NIT thus far?
As streaky as the team has been over the course of the season, they're equally streaky at times in a single game. They got off to an abysmal start against UCF, falling down by as many as 12 in the first half, before going on a 25-5 run over the course of the final two minutes of the first half, to the first four minutes of the second half, to get a big lead and never look back. Jamie Dixon is fantastic at making halftime adjustments, so if you're watching the first five minutes, here are a few things to note:
- If TCU starts slow, Dixon isn't afraid to go to the bench early. Also, you can expect TCU to go on a big run at some point. Know that TCU will never stop grinding it out, even if they get down big early in the game. This team has made some great comebacks this season.
- If TCU starts fast, it'll mean they're clicking from three, or that Vlad has found a groove early, or, like in the blowout against Richmond, both. They're susceptible to giving up a lead themselves, but it'll definitely indicate that a fun game is ahead.
FTRS: What's your prediction on the game? Who's taking home the trophy?
I honestly haven't watched much Georgia Tech this season (despite having an aunt, uncle, and two cousins that have degrees from GT), but I think this is going to be a close, hard-fought contest. Both teams hail from the best two conferences in the country, which means they're able to handle adversity and tough odds well. This TCU squad really wants to send the seniors out on a high note, and I think that motivation propels them to the W tonight.
TCU 74, Georgia Tech 69